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Head Strong: Calif. idea is worth a look for all of us

California - the state that brought us the hula hoop, property-tax revolts, Ronald Reagan, Van Halen, and the decriminalization of marijuana - may well deliver us another gift Tuesday.

California - the state that brought us the hula hoop, property-tax revolts, Ronald Reagan, Van Halen, and the decriminalization of marijuana - may well deliver us another gift Tuesday.

Yes, there are exciting primaries for the office of governor and senator, but what is really worth monitoring is the ballot initiative Proposition 14, which would drastically change the way the Golden State (and hopefully, the country) elects public officials.

Forget conventional closed primaries. Proposition 14 would allow candidates in California's primary to choose whether to associate themselves with a particular party or run unaffiliated. Then, all candidates would be listed on the same ballot, and every voter, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof), would be eligible to weigh in. The top two voter-getters - again, no matter what parties they represent - would advance to the general election. It means you could have two Republicans square off in the November election, or two Democrats, or two unaffiliated candidates.

Say what you want about California's predilection for advancing liberal agendas. The fact is, for all the head-shaking across the country, the rest of us always seem to come around to their way of thinking. And in this case, the numbers are on their side.

Independents remain the largest and fastest-growing voting demographic in the country. Gallup's latest party-affiliation tracker shows that a greater percentage of Americans identify themselves as independents (40 percent) than Democrats (30 percent) or Republicans (28 percent). In nine states, unaffiliated voters outnumber those in either major political party.

Yet in many places, including Pennsylvania, that burgeoning segment of the population is barred from voting in either party's nominating contests. As a result, the primaries are dominated by the major parties' respective fringe elements. Independents and moderates can do little to temper the far left and far right.

But Proposition 14 would usher in the ultimate free-market exercise. Every voter would have a chance to vote for any candidate, regardless of party or ideology and free of the litmus tests that dominate primary elections today. As Adam Mendelsohn, the veteran GOP strategist and adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now running the campaign in support of Proposition 14, told me last week: "I think people in California would be hard-pressed to prove that there's any kind of competition in their current electoral system."

Not surprisingly, those entrenched in that system - everyone from the Rs to the Ds to the socialists and the birthers - oppose Prop 14. Why? Because the loss of control would drive a final stake into the notion of centralized parties - finishing what the rise of political advertising on television started decades ago. But polling suggests the idea is important where it matters most - with the people. Maybe this is the best way to franchise those who now are left out of the primary process.

In Pennsylvania, a proposal by State Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D., York) to allow independents to vote in either major party primary has gotten a similarly tepid reception. It has languished in the State Government Committee for a year (though DePasquale told me last week that gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato had pledged support for it).

But actually moving the legislation, DePasquale said, "will be a very big challenge unless I can convince the members of the legislature that not only is it the right thing to do, but the popular support is there and there's actually a political risk in not doing it."

Make no mistake. The risk is there. Not only is political independence on the rise, but ideological centrism is, too. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last month found that 37 percent of respondents identify their approach to issues as "moderate" - more than any other classification.

Even more urgent, however, is the peril in which the current arrangement holds our electoral system. By freezing independents and unaffiliated voters out until November, states like Pennsylvania are disenfranchising an ever-increasing segment of the voting population.

The result is primary elections in which the fringe elements of both parties go unchecked to the voting booths. And by the time unaffiliated voters and moderates do get a say, they're forced to choose between a far-left Democrat and a far-right Republican.

The habit has caused less overlap among the most liberal Republican and conservative Democrats in Washington and state capitals across the country. Political polarization and the constant demonization of the opposite side of the aisle have become the norm.

But stalemate isn't a political process that works for everyday Americans. The electoral system that leads to it is light on much-needed centrism and heavy on ideological isolationism.

Proposition 14 would make primary election candidates accountable to more than the fringe elements of their political parties. Californians ought to pass it Tuesday. And the rest of us should pay attention.