Primary booby trap

Democrats and independents can vote for McCain in the California primary, but unless they're registered Republican, it won't count.

Published February 3, 2000 4:36PM (EST)

When all this business of nominating presidential candidates is over, Texas Gov. George W. Bush may owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a liberal state senator from San Francisco.

John Burton, the bombastic leader of the California state Senate and close ally of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, is one of the most liberal, and powerful, elected officials in the state. But a bipartisan bill finessed through the Legislature by Burton last year handed a key victory to both political parties, which may ultimately aid Bush's drive for the White House.

Burton helped the Democratic and Republican parties de-fang a ballot initiative passed by 60 percent of California voters that introduced the "blanket primary." Under the system, California voters were able to cast votes for candidates from any political party, regardless of the voter's stated affiliation.

But the Democratic and Republican parties feared they would be fundamentally crippled by the new rules, claiming only party members should be allowed to choose party candidates, and warning that the process could lead to a form of voter sabotage. Some worried that the primary would prompt mischievous strategic voting by one party to nominate another party's weakest candidates.

The parties immediately filed suit in U.S. District Court to block the measure, but the District Court ruled in favor of the primary. When the state parties appealed the case to the 9th District Court of Appeals, both the national parties joined in the suit. Again, the courts upheld the ballot measure. (The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the parties' case this spring, but Alfie Charles, spokesman for California Secretary of State Bill Jones, said the high court's ruling would not affect this year's balloting.)

Enter John Burton. Working with Jones, Burton crafted a ballot measure that maintains the blanket primary ballot, but counts only partisan votes for the delegate total. Voters will be given a ballot that lists all the candidates to choose from and also shows the voter's party affiliation. When the votes are counted, a separate tally will be kept based on a voter's party registration. Only a vote coming from, for example, a registered Democrat will count toward the Democratic Party's delegate count. A vote cast by a member of the Green Party for Al Gore, for example, will be excluded from the Democratic total. The state will release both the blanket and partisan results, according to Charles.

The new measure will eliminate the influence of independent and third-party voters on convention delegates. Ironically, this has happened as that voting bloc has grown immensely in California. Since 1990, total registration in the state has increased from 13.1 million to 14.7 million. But while Democratic and Republican registration has remained stagnant in that period, the number of voters registered as independent has jumped from 1.2 million to just over 2 million, and third-party registration has gone from roughly 280,000 to more than 769,000.

A handful of elected officials, like Democratic Assemblyman Jack Scott, opposed changing the rules to bow to the will of the parties. "The national political party bosses are not going to frustrate the voters of California by refusing to honor their vote," Scott wrote in a ballot pamphlet argument against Proposition 3, an unsuccessful 1998 ballot initiative that sought to subvert the open primary.

This maneuvering by party apparatchiks creates a peculiar dynamic in a year in which both parties have presidential candidates running anti-establishment campaigns. Conceivably, March 7 could result in a situation in which Sen. John McCain, for example, wins the popular vote in California, but loses the partisan ballot to George W. Bush, who would then receive all of the state's 162 delegates.

Though the Burton bill was passed when McCain was but a blip on the national radar, it will probably hurt McCain's campaign in California. The Arizona senator bested Bush better than 3-1 among independent voters in New Hampshire, en route to his 18-point victory over the Texas governor. But New Hampshire has an "open primary," where an independent must choose a specific party's ballot to fill out.

Taking independents out of the political equation is certain to benefit Bush, who has a strong grip on the Republican Party structure in the Golden State. Even before Bush launched his presidential exploratory committee, California Republicans were fawning over him, jockeying with each other over who would become W's California connection.

One of the ultimate winners was state Sen. Jim Brulte, who was named co-chairman of the California Bush campaign. Brulte recently relinquished that job to take over as finance director of the state Republican Party. With a confidant in control of the state party's purse strings, the Bush campaign now will have a powerful influence over the millions in soft money that will be spent by the party.

Bush's bank-book advantage will be critical in California. In a state where campaigns are won and lost in 30-second TV spots, Bush's greenbacks will enable him to simply outgun McCain. To combat this advantage, the McCain campaign has made something of a push to re-register moderate Democrats and independent voters as Republicans for the March 7 primary, though the odds of that happening in significant enough numbers are remote at best. The deadline to re-register in California is Monday.

In an e-mail message sent out this week, McCain's California co-chairman, John Griffiths, tried to spur California independents into action. "The landslide [in New Hampshire] was a result of the independents that voted for McCain by a three-to-one margin. Without the independent vote, the results would have been very close. With the victory in New Hampshire and McCain's growing strength in South Carolina, the national Republican primary race will probably be decided in California on March 7. And, if we can use the New Hampshire results as a guide, the independent voter will decide the California Republican Primary."

If McCain wins the popular vote, but gets shut out of the delegate count, that will only underscore his populist, anti-political machine message. Such a split decision would certainly confound the pundits, and while it would be meaningless in terms of delegates, McCain's campaign says that such a scenario could still give the senator a lift.

"Our goal is to win both the blanket primary and the delegate count," said McCain spokesman Dan Schnur. "But hypothetically, a candidate who wins the popular vote but not the delegate count would receive a momentum boost coming out of California, absolutely."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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California George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.