RICHARDSON: Dividing choices

May 25, 2014 

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we changed our primary election system. I’m tired of being forced to make a choice because the political parties want to remain oil and water. If you vote in one primary, you can’t vote in the other. And if there is a runoff, as there is in the Republican primary, you’re locked out if you voted in the Democratic primary.

My dilemma is twofold. Part has to do with the primary itself and the other part is that we allow partisan lawmakers to divvy us up in neat partisan districts for their own re-election security. Republicans don’t stand a chance in a Democratic district and the same is true of Democrats in a Republican district, so they don’t try. We end up with a General Election masquerading as a primary.

Here’s my quandary. I would have really liked to have voted for David Perdue in the U.S. Senate race, but I couldn’t. Why? There were only Democrats running in the state Senate in my area -- David Lucas and Miriam Paris for District 26. In the state House, my choices were Democrats Nikki Randall and Gerald Harvey. Not a Republican in sight in November. If I had decided to vote Republican, I wouldn’t have been able to cast a ballot for two offices that have a more direct impact on my life than the U.S. Senate.

I’m not one to present a problem without a solution. In California they moved to a top-two-finishers primary. The top two, regardless of party, meet in November. Sometimes it ends up with Democrats facing off and at other times Republicans. The jury is still out whether the system is working as intended. Washington state and Louisiana, while not exactly alike, have open primaries, too.

California has sought to fix the other side of the vexing problem of redistricting. The state has a Citizens Redistricting Commission made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and four “decline-to-state” members. They have the job of drawing the district lines using pretty simple criteria:

• Having equal population.

• Complying with the Voting Rights Act.

• Drawing contiguous districts so that all parts of the district are connected to each other.

• Respecting the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and communities of interest and minimizing their division, to the extent possible.

• Being geographically compact.

• Prohibiting districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against an incumbent, candidate or political party.

That is not the system we have here in Georgia, and so far, California is leading the way in this area. Voters did it by passing Proposition 11, the “Voters First Act.” This referendum seems to work for California, but the California referendum system is complicated and easy to compromise with money and language.

Similar to some of the constitutional amendments we’ve been asked to approve here in Georgia, California is famous for having language that means the opposite of what an intelligent human being might think. Sometimes a “yes” vote is actually a “no” vote and vice versa.

But without the system in California, where citizens, not just lawmakers, can get items on the ballot, those changes to redistricting and open primaries would have never occurred. Lawmakers never call in fire on their own positions. That would make them unfaithful to their prime directive of getting re-elected.

Having said that, the chances are about nil that Georgia would follow suit, but there is hope. Most of the local offices with the exception of sheriff are nonpartisan now. Many county offices from the water authority chairman to school board appeared on all ballots in the county.

So what are my thoughts on Tuesday’s primary? There was only one surprise and that was down in Warner Robins. Incumbent Willie Talton lost his District 147 seat to Heath Clark. Talton’s a great guy, and Clark needs to have some of his congeniality in order to get anything done for his constituents. Houston County lawmakers are pretty clubby and will probably take offense at a newcomer kicking out a member. Clark should seek Talton’s advice -- and if possible -- his blessing. If not, it could be a difficult indoctrination for the neophyte.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com.

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