Blanket: Primaries Versus Parties in California History


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In Voting at the Political Fault Line: California's Experiment with the Blanket Primary, Bruce E. Cain and Elisabeth Gerber, eds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002, pp. 12--35.

2 Crossover Voting Before the

Blanket: Primaries Versus Parties in California History

Brian J. Gaines

Wendy K. Tam Cho

The passage of Proposition 198, which brought the blanket primary to California, was in plain defiance of the preferences and advice of most elites, including, notably, both of the major political parties. In this chapter, we briefly trace the chronology of primary elections in the Golden State, with an emphasis on how they have been intertwined, from the beginning, with an anti-party spirit. We thus orient the blanket-primary, as delivered by direct democracy, in a distinctive state political culture of independence from, and ambivalence or even hostility towards, political parties. We then focus on the parallels between voting options under the brand new blanket primary law and those presented in the mid-twentieth century during the multi- (or “cross-”) filing era, in search of an appropriate historical baseline against which to place 1998 and future elections.

The easy passage of Proposition 198, the Open Primary Initiative, can be understood as yet another instance of defiant populism, wherein a healthy majority of California voters thumb their noses at elite advice to embrace a measure whose appeal is simple and whose alleged flaws evidently do not trouble many. As such, Proposition 198 followed in the wake of numerous other initiatives, the most famous of which is probably still 1978's Proposition 13, a property-tax-freezing measure that is sometimes said to have set off a nation-wide “tax revolt” (see, e.g., Kettl 1992, 58, 152). But the change from a closed to a fully open primary originated in something more specific than populism: it was clearly an act of anti-party populism, which thus tapped a sentiment that dates from the founding of the country and that has been especially strong in California.

The blanket primary is a novelty in California's electoral history, but it is closely related to a prior innovation in primary electoral law, cross-filing (a.k.a. multi-filing). Amongst American states, only California and New York have had long and plentiful experience with allowing candidates to enter multiple party primaries, and thereby possibly to secure several party nominations for the general election. California's multi-filing history and New York's ongoing experiment with this practice have produced rather different outcomes. In New York, a right-wing Conservative party, a left-wing Liberal party, and the occasional very small special-interest party have all become interesting supporting players, whose presence acts as a centrifugal force on candidates from the major parties. Most often, the identifiable blocs of votes cast for fusion candidates under the Conservative and/or Liberal lines simply inflate or deflate existing Republican-Democratic margins of victory or defeat. On occasion, though, they provide the critical difference.1 It has, in any case, always been rare in New York for any candidate to seek, let alone secure, nominations for more than one of the major parties (i.e. Democrats and Republicans).2

Initially, multiple filing in California followed this same general pattern, with some Republicans and Democrats seeking to bolster their appeal by adding Progressive, Socialist, or Prohibition nominations to their principal party designation. After all of these minor parties receded to the fringe in the 1920s, multi-filing took a new shape: “double-filing” in the two major-party primaries became the modal practice for incumbents and an occasional tactic for challengers and open-seat contestants. The direct impact was that, even though the primaries were closed, in many seats, registered Democrats and Republicans were able to vote for candidates from their own party or for candidates from the other major party who had cross-filed. This is, more or less, what opening the primary under the blanket system achieves as well. The cross-filing period, then, is a natural era to examine for insight and clues into how the new blanket primary era will unfold.

This chapter explores the comparison between these two distinct but obviously related electoral systems. We first provide a brief background discussion of primary elections in American political history and the original passage of a primary election law in California. No sooner had California inaugurated a system of party-controlled nominations than candidates and voters invented a means of bypassing party control via cross-filing. We discuss the significance of this practice, and present evidence on its incidence, and on how it affected voting. Our goal, at this stage, is to explore the similarities and dissimilarities between multi-filing primaries and blanket primaries, in an effort to extract the history most relevant to those whose interest lies in how the blanket can be expected to settle now that it has been draped over the state. Finally, we review the multiple stages by which the blanket primary became law and then, immediately, was modified, yet again uncovering a tale of partisan elites versus the party-wary masses.

Origins and Implications of Primary Elections

The primary election is an early twentieth century “progressive” invention. Primaries were adopted in many American states as a substitute for conventions, in an effort to pry power away from strong party bosses and machines and relocate it with candidates and the mass electorate. In California, as in some other states, much of the controversy surrounding the adoption of direct primaries concerned provisions for electing U.S. Senators. The first attempt to establish mandatory primaries in California occurred in 1897. That act fell to court challenges without actually being implemented, as did similar legislation passed in 1899 and 1900 (Young 1943, 117–118). Since all of these legislative efforts preceded the advent of popular election of U.S. Senators (i.e. the Seventeenth Amendment), they were regarded as being partly—or even principally—back-door means of transferring the power to elect Senators from state legislators to the general public, and were applauded or abhorred accordingly. Oregon had set an early example of how a direct primary could achieve this exact purpose of tying the state legislature’s hands, and so there was growing popular support in California for some form of primary. By 1908, a constitutionally satisfactory approach was found: A.C.A. 3, which directed the legislature to “enact laws providing for the direct nomination of candidates for public office,” thereby amending section 2½ of Article II of the Constitution, passed both houses by more than the two-thirds required for constitutional amendments (State of California 1920, 74). At the general election of 1908, the public approved A.C.A. 3 by 76.6% to 23.4%, with every county favoring the amendment by a lopsided margin (Statement of the Vote…1908, 14).

The 1909 session of the California legislature then opened with a three-month-long battle between a bipartisan reform (pro-primary) coalition and a bipartisan pro-machine (anti-primary) coalition. Some type of primary seemed inevitable, but opponents strove to craft either an innocuous law that would change nothing or an unconstitutional one that would be struck down by courts before it could take effect. Following a tortuous chronology of amendments and reconsiderations, several near-tie roll calls, a week of deadlock in the Senate (maintained by hourly postponements!), plus various reversals of position by individual legislators, the law that was ultimately passed did not allow for de facto election of U.S. Senators, but did establish closed, partisan primaries for other offices (see Hichborn 1909, 68–120 for a detailed, plainly-not-disinterested account of the bill's passage).

Franklin Hichborn devoted decades to covering city politics in San Francisco and the dominance of California state politics by the Southern-Pacific Railroad and its allies.3 For several sessions in the 1910s and 1920s, one can compute A.D.A.-style “progressivism” scores for all members of both houses of the California legislature using the key votes and pro-reform positions identified by Hichborn on the basis of his intensive legislature watching.4 The 27 pro-primary Senators (20 Republicans, 7 Democrats) had an average progressivism score of 72, while the 13 foes (11 Republicans, 2 Democrats) averaged only 28. In the Assembly, the 36 (11 Democrats, 25 Republicans) in favor of reform on a critical primary vote averaged a score of 88 while the average for the 38 opponents (5 Democrats and 33 Republicans) was 50 points lower, at 38. It seems clear that the partisan primary emerged from a populist movement that spanned the major parties, uniting the members who were most likely to vote against entrenched interests (particularly big business) and to vote for major social reforms and institutional innovations that promoted more transparent government.5

Since 1910, then, California's state and national elective offices have been filled by elections occurring in two rounds. In the spring or summer, the major (and minor) parties hold primary elections to select nominees for the state's elective offices. Primary winners then compete in November for elevation to the office in question. While the advent of the primary weakened central party organizations, by admitting the mass electorate into the nomination process, the closed nature of the primary strengthened parties in the electorate. That is, only those registered with a given party were permitted to vote in that party’s primary, and so party membership (by way of registration) became important. Moreover, part of the compromise by which the primary was passed was inclusion of rules intended to ensure that candidates be authentic partisans. A candidate was required “to make affidavit ‘that he affiliated with [the party whose nomination he sought] at the last preceding general election, and either that he did not vote thereat, or voted for a majority of the candidates of said party at said preceding general election, and intends to so vote at the ensuing election’” (California Statutes 1909, 694, quoted in Hichborn 1909, 72).

The closedness of the primary and the candidates’ affiliation-pledge requirement were plainly at odds with the nonpartisan, or perhaps more accurately, anti-party, spirit that was sweeping the state at that time. Enough Progressives were carried into office on Hiram Johnson’s coattails in 1910 that the legislature was able, after the passage of only two election campaigns, to do away with the candidate pledge requirements, and to make explicit the right of candidates to seek multiple party nominations without regard to their own registration or voting history. “Cross filing,” wherein candidates ran in two (or more) primaries quickly became normal, first for state races, then for congressional races. Indeed, the first election in which candidates could file for multiple party nominations was 1914, and nearly half the members of the 1915 Assembly won their seats holding the nominations of more than one party!6

By 1915, the state had made local elective offices nonpartisan, and Governor Johnson was urging the legislature to follow suit by making its own elections nonpartisan as well (see Hichborn 1922, 221–222 for the text of Johnson’s biennial message to the legislature in 1915). In 1910, Johnson had won a five-way Republican primary before besting Democratic, Socialist, and Prohibition candidates in the general. In 1914, however, he opted to run only as a Progressive, eschewing major-party designation despite the fact that Progressives accounted for less than 20% of all registered voters. His personal popularity was so great that he nearly won a majority of the vote all the same. In yet another five-way race, he took 49.7% of the vote, with the Republican and Democrat finishing 20% and 37% behind, respectively. Johnson was much less successful in his efforts to persuade the legislature to rid itself of parties, perhaps in part because of a mistake in tactics.

The primary remained inextricably linked to nonpartisanship, and both were subjected to popular approval in a 1915 special election, wherein the key item was a measure that would make the primary, and hence the operation of the legislature, non-partisan. By Hichborn’s account, this election “more than anything else seemed in its results to voice a protest at calling special elections for the consideration of such matters” (1922, 222). Turnout was low and all eleven submitted measures were defeated, even the ones against which no opposition campaign at all had been waged. As a consequence, the legislature did not establish a nonpartisan primary to do away with its partisan organization.

In the 1917 session, moreover, the legislature amended the Direct Primary Law in the opposite direction. On the justification that the special election had revealed little support for ridding the state houses of parties, state legislators added a new requirement that a candidate could not win the nomination for a party other than the one for which he was registered without also winning his own party’s nomination. In the August 1918 primaries, this precise scenario played out at the top of the ticket, as James Rolph, Jr., a registered Republican, took 45.6% of the Democratic vote, to 36.9% and 17.6% for two rivals, but finished second in the Republican race, with 39.2% against 45.1% (the balance being distributed amongst four others). Rolph was thus defeated as the Republican nominee for Governor and disqualified as the Democratic nominee, and so no one was permitted to run under the Democrat banner in the general. Before the 1920 elections, still further amendments empowered county party committees to fill vacancies created in this manner by appointment, just as they could fill vacancies created by death or by an absence of any filers for the primary. So it was that, under special circumstances, party organizations again took control of nominations, in stark violation of the spirit of the primary.7

Over the next decades, scarcely a legislative session passed without some proposal to amend the direct primary. Efforts to extend the anti-party strains by making the primaries (and, hence, the legislature) non-partisan were about as common as counter proposals to forbid cross-filing altogether and revert to basic closed primaries in which registered Republicans select Republican nominees, registered Democrats select Democratic nominees, and never the twain do meet.

Neither side triumphed in extending or defeating cross-filing principles until 1952, when two propositions on the general election ballot competed to change the status quo. Proposition 13, an initiative, would have prohibited cross-filing by specifying that “no person shall be a candidate or nominee of a political party for any office unless he has been registered as affiliated with such party for at least three months prior to filing nomination papers.” The campaign for signatures to qualify this initiative was, in a strictly literal sense, bipartisan, as the League of Women Voters joined a former Republican state senator and a Democratic oil millionaire in its support (Davies 1951). The support for Proposition 13, however, was much more Democratic than Republican. Not too surprisingly, then, the Republican-controlled legislature drafted an alternative to Proposition 13. Proposition 7 merely required that “the ballot shall show political party affiliation of each candidate for partisan office, as shown by candidate’s registration affidavit.” Proposition 7 passed easily, 72.8% to 27.2%, with majority support in every county (most counties closely matching the statewide breakdown). Proposition 13 fared less well: it barely failed to achieve majority support with 49.96% approval statewide (majorities approved in only 19 of 58 counties). Fittingly, where Proposition 7 did well, Proposition 13 did poorly (compared to its statewide performance), and vice versa: the correlation between county percentage approval rates for the two measures is –0.42. By contrast, the correlation between the Democratic registration percentages and Proposition 13 was +0.21, reinforcing the suspicion that opinions on the primary were becoming bound up in normal party politics, notwithstanding the fact that some Republicans had taken part in the campaign for Proposition 13.

The other shoe dropped in April of 1959. The 1958 elections had delivered the first unified Democratic control of California of the twentieth century, and Governor Pat Brown and the legislature wasted little time in abolishing cross-filing. Media coverage of the bill at the time emphasized that cross-filing was widely thought to favor Republicans. The New York Times opined, “California’s Republicans, outnumbered [in registration] for the last twenty-seven years, capitalized on cross-filing to maintain a half century’s domination of state politics” (Hill 1959a). Closer to the action, the Los Angeles Times’s report on passage of the repeal by the State Senate emphasized that, “abolition of cross-filing has been a Democratic Party objective for years” (no author, 1959). The roll calls reflected that same partisan story. The Assembly passed A.B. 118 on February 24, 1959, with 45 Democrats and 4 Republicans voting in favor against 1 Democrat and 28 Republicans (1 Democrat and 1 Republican abstained). In the Senate, the bill passed 22–15, 21 Democrats and 1 Republican defeating 4 Democrats and 11 Republicans (2 Democrats and 1 Republican abstained).8

The interpretation that the Democrats of 1959 were finally in a position to close a pro-Republican loophole is complicated just slightly by the fact that some prominent Republicans expressed support for the change in primary law, and some Democrats lamented the end of the cross-filing era. Only one member of California’s congressional delegation spoke out against the repeal, Senator Thomas Kuchel (R), who struck a very Progressive tone: “The people of California are not extremely partisan—they want clean, strong and honest government. In my judgment, cross-filing has helped them get it” (Shannon 1959). Moreover, the contention that cross-filing was somehow inevitably favorable to Republicans was rarely backed with any explicit logic. From the advent of party labels in 1954 to 1958, there were 11 instances of Democrats winning the Republican nomination for U.S. House seats, against 0 Republican victories in Democratic primaries. It seems plausible that cross-filing might have favored incumbents, insofar as simple name recognition ensured them an advantage over challengers amongst the less intensely partisan registered voters. If this were so, it would mean that the ability to cross-file worked to the advantage of the Republicans when they were the stronger state party, but started to help Democrats, on balance, after the state began to lean their way in the late 1930s. We shall return to this question in the next section.

Figure 2.1 shows three indirect indicators of the prevalence of multiple filing for U.S. House and California Senate contests in the 23 elections in which it was permitted (1914–1958).9 Before and after that period, general-election winners almost invariably held only one party's nomination, the exceptions being candidates who won extra nominations by write-in campaigns. By contrast, the dashed line shows that, on average, winners held about 1.5 nominations in this era, and in 1918 actually averaged more than 2 party nominations each. The average number of candidates in competition for California's U.S. House seats was high at the outset of the era, when the Progressive, Socialist, and Prohibition parties were still active. However, it quickly fell, as fewer and fewer individuals secured more and more nominations. Accordingly, the average value for a size-weighted count of candidates (the so-called “effective number”) fell nearly to one, indicating that most districts were dominated by one individual, standing as the candidate for more than one party.10 Not until the late 1950s did California's U.S. House elections take the familiar modern American shape of competition between two candidates, each of whom represents one of the two major parties.

The significance of the foregoing is that primary elections in which a voter may cross over to support candidates from a party other than his own are not new to California. Whereas the modern practice has been to “open” primaries by permitting some party-crossing behavior on the part of voters,

Figure 2. 1

in California’s past, parties’ influence was bypassed on the supply side, by allowing candidates to straddle party organizations for electoral purposes.11 We turn now to an analysis of the actual voting patterns under these rules.

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