Primary suspect

Legislation promoted by California Secretary of State Bill Jones may keep John McCain from winning the state primary. So why is Jones endorsing him?

Topics: Republican Party, California, John McCain, R-Ariz., Washington, D.C.

By most measures, Bill Jones has been a very effective secretary of state for California. He helped pass legislation to make online filing of campaign contributions for candidates for state office and ballot measures mandatory. He also placed California in the thick of the presidential hunt by moving the state’s primary from June to March.

But when Jones, the highest-ranking Republican elected official in the state, abandoned his support for George W. Bush and endorsed John McCain last week, a number of Jones’ colleagues in Sacramento were suggesting that the move had as much to do with his desire for publicity as his political convictions. Indeed, since Jones’ high-profile defection, he has made the rounds on the cable news talk shows and will be the subject a major Los Angeles Times profile Sunday.

Now, fellow Republicans are privately accusing Jones of hypocrisy for his criticism of California’s new primary rules, which may ultimately hurt McCain’s campaign. A new law that was promoted by Jones effectively undermined the will of the state’s voters to hold an open primary. But Jones was singing a different tune as he made his media rounds last week.

“Wait till you actually have people show up and vote, and yet their votes are not counted,” Jones said on CNN Tuesday. “They have their right to make their rules,” he said. “I’m just cautioning them not to throw cold water in the face of independent voters … They need to be sensitive to this problem and look at what’s in the long-term best interests of the California party and the national party.”

Problem is, Jones helped write the law.

California voters adopted a blanket primary in 1996, apparently ignorant of the fact that the new law flouted national party rules. A blanket primary allows voters to choose candidates from either party. Both the Republican and Democratic parties oppose because they undermine the party’s right to choose their own presidential nominees.

Both parties threatened to bar California delegates from the national party conventions unless the new primary rules were changed. Jones helped craft a compromise along with Democratic State Sen. Steve Peace that ensures that only the vote of registered Republicans, for example, would be applied to the selection of the state’s 162 GOP delegates. If John McCain were to win the popular vote in the blanket primary, but failed to secure a majority of the state’s Republican voters, his victory would only be symbolic.

“It was Bill who first recommended the coded ballot solution,” one lawmaker said. “This talk show tour he’s doing now is just completely disingenuous.”

Jones did not return numerous calls seeking comment for this story, his pared-down press staff suddenly dizzy from the flood of media attention. Jones also lost his press secretary, Alfie Charles, who left to become McCain’s California spokesman. But Jones has been speaking to television cameras. In fact, he’s almost impossible to escape.

Still, the rules in both parties are relatively new. In the 1970s, major reform movements swept through both parties, giving primary voters their first real say in who the party’s nominee would be. Before that time, candidates were largely hand-picked in smoke-filled rooms, said one Democratic National Committee source.

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Since then, the parties have remained steadfast in their opposition to the blanket primary. “We have felt very strongly about this rule for many years,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus.

Californians watched with confusion as Democrats and independents played pivotal roles in the GOP primaries in New Hampshire and Michigan. California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland explained the difference between those states, which have open primaries, and the blanket primaries. “In Washington, Alaska, Louisiana and California, a voter gets a ballot with all the candidates from all parties on the same ballot,” Mulholland said. “In New Hampshire or Michigan, an independent goes into the polling place and says, ‘I want to vote in the Democratic Party today.’ They are then given a Democratic ballot. On that ballot is Al Gore’s name and Bill Bradley’s name. You don’t see Bush or Forbes. You have now complied with the national party rules.”

But California’s rules are relatively simple compared to the byzantine process that will unfold in Washington next week. Like California, Washington also has a blanket primary. And while Bill Bradley has made Washington a focus of his languishing campaign, somebody ought to tell the poor guy that exactly zero delegates will be chosen in that state on Feb. 29. People with nothing better to do can trot on down to their Washington polling place and vote in a vacuum, but the state’s 75 Democratic delegates will be selected in March caucuses.

“It’s purely a beauty contest,” said Mulholland.

Things are even more convoluted for Republicans. On Feb. 29, only 12 of the state’s 37 delegates will be chosen. Three delegates will go to the Republican who wins the statewide tally, and one delegate will go to the winner of each of Washington’s nine congressional districts. So why will the Republican National Committee agree to seat the 12 delegates chosen in a blanket primary, but none of the 162 delegates from California?

RNC spokesman Mike Collins said it has to do with the convoluted way the delegates are actually chosen. But wouldn’t it be simpler if the two major parties just allowed delegates to be picked in blanket primaries?

“We believe Republicans should have the right to choose who the Republican nominee for president will be,” Collins said.

But the fact is, in California and Washington, the parties’ nominees for everything from U.S. Senate to tax assessor are picked by all voters, and somehow the sun still manages to rise in the east every single morning.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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