Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Watches California's Muddled Experiment with Election Reform

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Watches California's Muddled Experiment with Election Reform

Article excerpt

During the past five years, California voters have made it clear they want to fundamentally change the way their government works.

In backing three ballot measures - one to put term limits on lawmakers, another to cap campaign spending, and a third to open state primaries to voters of any party - voters hoped to reshape a political system that many saw as gridlocked, exclusionary, and driven by special interests.

Now, as the measures creep through the courts toward implementation, the California experiment offers other states - and lawmakers in Washington - a window on what happens when fed-up voters tackle three major political reforms at once. For now, the picture is one just short of complete chaos. In the secretary of state's office, which is responsible for carrying out elections, people put it bluntly. "We don't know who will be able to run for office {in 1998}, how much they can raise, from whom they can raise it, or who will be able to vote for them," says department spokesman Alfie Charles. Despite the uncertainty the propositions have generated, Californians may well be furthest along in grappling with issues that have also grabbed the national stage. Congress hasn't been able to decide how to change federal campaign-finance laws, despite its continuing probes into questionable fund-raising tactics, and voters nationwide say they are alienated by an inside-the-Beltway mentality. Unintended consequences In California, some political observers are now saying that the revised system might not accomplish what the voters intended. In short, the state may find itself even more beholden to special interests and their "soft-money" contributions. Proposition 198, for example, sets up a "blanket" primary, meaning that any voter can choose a candidate from any party, mixing and matching to endorse a list of favorite candidates. California campaigns are already the most costly in the country, and many political experts agree that Prop. 198 will make them more so, as candidates are forced to appeal to voters of all parties just to get past the primary. Yet under Proposition 208 - the one that deals with campaign finance - candidates' abilities to raise money are sharply curtailed. …

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