Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t endorsed his party’s Presidential nominee (he voted for John Kasich and appointed to state court Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, against whom Donald Trump has lodged racist attacks). But the former bodybuilder and California governor has endorsed South Dakota’s Amendment V, the open non-partisan primary proposal.
Schwarzenegger writes in today’s Rapid City Journal that moving to nonpartisan primaries played a key role in tempering partisanship and extremism in California politics:
I led a reform effort, partnering with a diverse group of political leaders, good government groups and the business community. The centerpiece of that reform battle was making our elections nonpartisan, so that the voters had the power, not the parties and special interests. That is what Amendment V would do for South Dakota and what the nonpartisan Legislature has done for Nebraska for nearly 80 years.
We were right. As a result of our leadership and the will of the voters, nonpartisan elections have transformed California. The Lucy Burns Institute now rates our elections as the most competitive in America (Nebraska is a close second).
All voters — including independents — now participate equally and get to vote for the candidate of their choice, not the political party’s choice. This competition for all voters produces legislators who govern for all the people, not the parties and special interests.
In a study just released by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, we found that many candidates running for the Legislature have become more moderate and more interested in appealing to voters across party lines since the change. And we are regaining the people’s trust, with the Legislature’s approval rating soaring from just 12 percent of voters before the change to 44 percent today [Arnold Schwarzenegger, “SD Can Terminate Partisanship,” Rapid City Journal, 2016.06.12].
Schwarzenegger can point to more moderate candidates and more competitive elections. However, since passage of the Top Two Primaries Act in 2010, voter turnout has remained flat while primary participation has declined.
Like Amendment V, California’s top-two primary doesn’t apply to the Presidential primary. California primary turnout exceeded expectations this year (and at 49% blew away South Dakota’s measly 22%), but as in South Dakota, turnout was lower than in the 2008 Obama/Clinton primary.
Changing South Dakota’s primary to mirror California’s top-two system doesn’t guarantee more people will participate in the process. But it does guarantee that all South Dakotans can participate in the election of all of their elected officials. For example, today’s Aberdeen American News editorial laments the District 23 House race, where Republicans alone chose their Representatives last week:
The chilling effect of uncontested races was summed up in this passage from our District 23 wrap-up story in Wednesday’s paper:
“Because the Republican primary in South Dakota is closed and only members of the GOP could cast ballots, not everyone in the district had an opportunity to vote for their Pierre representatives.”
Think about that. Many races were decided in Tuesday’s primaries, meaning some voters didn’t have the choice to vote for or against the candidates of their choosing. They will be represented in Pierre in January by men or women who have never appeared on their ballots [editorial, Aberdeen American News, 2016.06.12].
The same can be said of District 15, where Republican voters were disenfranchised by the absence of a Republican candidate for State Senate, and Democrats and Independents alone decided that Reynold Nesiba shold be their next Senator. The same has occurred in the last three elections in District 31, where only Republicans have run for Legislature, and only Republicans have gotten to vote for their Pierre representation.
Amendment V would end those exclusions, allowing every voter, regardless of party affiliation, to participate in selecting their legislators, regardless of whether their party fields a candidate. Whether more people will participate in primaries, Amendment V makes more participation possible. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I agree that allowing that participation is good for democracy.