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Liberals for Buchanan? Maybe in California

Voters want open primaries in the Golden State, but parties are fighting them in court.

They're strange bedfellows, even by California standards. Republicans and Democrats in the Golden State have stopped fighting for votes. Instead, they're fighting voters.

State party leaders have gone to court to block Proposition 198, a voter-approved initiative that would let Californians, regardless of party affiliation, vote for any candidate in primaries.

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Supporters argue the measure would give voters a greater say in state politics, boost election turnouts, and dilute the influence of political activists - usually the more extreme wings of each party - and thus make the process more representative. But critics - including the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties - believe it will undermine the party system, a hallmark of American democracy.

The California case is being closely watched across the country. Two states, Alaska and Washington, already hold open primaries. But such a move by California, the nation's unofficial bellwether, could change how the rest of the country chooses its leaders. The measure comes at a time when the primary system is under scrutiny at the presidential level as well, in part because of the influence small states like New Hampshire, and the moderate and liberal wings of the major parties, hold over elections.

"A lot of people argue that if voters say parties mean less and less, allowing people to vote for either party makes them even more meaningless," notes E.J. Dionne, a political commentator at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "There are two options: One is to accept the critique and get rid of restrictions on primary voting, the other is to say no, parties should stand for something."

Passed last year with 60 percent of California's voters behind it, Prop. 198 would allow voters to back a variety of candidates on the primary slate. Under the previous system, voters were limited to choosing candidates from their own party.

The parties have filed suit on the grounds that Prop. 198 infringes on their First Amendment rights to freedom of association. It interferes with members' ability to choose their own nominees, they say, and creates opportunities for abuse.

Democrats offer an example from the 1996 presidential election to explain. Under an open primary system, Democrats could have crossed the floor to push Pat Buchanan to victory in the California Republican primary, casting their vote for the Republican they felt President Clinton could beat most easily. "It's a little like allowing your opponent to determine your lineup in a baseball game," says Art Torres, the state Democratic chairman.

IT'S an unrealistic scenario, counters Rep. Tom Campbell (R), who played a major role in getting Prop. 198 on the ballot. "Tell me how Democrats get Democrats to vote for Pat Buchanan," he asks. "Do they run ads for him saying he's a good Democrat? It's absolutely implausible."

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Mr. Torres and others raise the possibility of more profound change, saying an open primary could fundamentally alter the party system. Candidates heading into a primary would have to adjust their stance to appeal to voters across the political spectrum, they say. "It would turn the political process into mush," Torres says. "The purpose of individual parties is to have a clear perspective of ideological candidacy."

But Torres and his allies might be hard-pressed to find sympathy. The votes on Prop. 198 indicate most Californians want change. And Secretary of State Bill Jones questions the parties' rejection of voters' wishes. "It's improper for the leaders of California's political parties to be in court trying to reverse the democratic result of a majority vote cast by the members of their own parties. California voters have the right to reform their government."

And despite Torres's claims that California is a unique political entity, lawyers for Secretary Jones dismissed many arguments against Prop. 198 by citing Washington and Alaska, where the United States Supreme Court has upheld open primary systems.

A decision is expected before the end of the year - just as ballots are being printed for state elections in June 1998.

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