Having just traversed the state on a quick four-day family trip to Yosemite – passing dozens of polarizing election signs, scanning various newspapers and listening to too much talk radio along the way – I’ve come to one conclusion: Despite all the talk, the only hope for any real change emerging from this election rests with Proposition 14.

Without it, expect just more of the same: A California Legislature dominated by those on the extremes governing a populace that craves middle-of-the-road, sensible solutions. Yes, the kind of hard compromises we’re all making with our household budgets to get through these difficult times.

It’s a fact that the fastest growing political party affiliation among California voters is “Decline to state.” Their ranks have grown from about 2 million in 2000 to nearly 3.5 million – 20 percent of voters – in the November 2008 election. Yet unless they specifically ask for a Democratic Party or Republican Party ballot on Tuesday, which they’re allowed to do, these 3.5 million voters will have no voice in these primary elections. They simply will be handed a nonpartisan ballot containing only ballot measures and the names of candidates for nonpartisan offices.

Under Proposition 14, all registered voters would be allowed to vote in the primary for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. The two top vote-getters would then square off in the November general election. This would help ensure that conservative GOP-dominated areas, such as those in the Central Valley, and liberal, Democratic areas, such as this one, are not always electing uncompromising legislators who do little in Sacramento but protect the special interests that got them into office and demonize the other side.

Right now, there is only one race that essentially matters in Sonoma County. It’s the Democratic primary. Democrats here compete in the primary in order to see who will coast to victory against an underfunded and out-gunned Republican in the fall. Under Proposition 14, voters here and elsewhere might have a chance to support someone more in the center, which is where polls continually show most Californians find themselves on issues such as cutting programs, balancing the budget, raising taxes, etc.

So why are you hearing so many complaints about Proposition 14 from major party leaders? Because it messes with the status quo. Don’t fall for those crocodile tears about how this might hurt third parties. The major parties like the fact that third parties are so marginalized in California. In any event, third parties will still have their candidates on the primary ballots and have as much of a chance as anyone to see their candidates on the fall ballot.

But here’s another side benefit. More people who are currently dissatisfied with the political system may actually get involved.

In reality, the fastest growing voter segment in California is not just “Decline to state.” It’s “decline to participate.”

Despite the uptick in voter involvement in 2008, voter turnout statewide has been anemic. And I would expect a low statewide turnout on Tuesday. In June 2006, the last time we had a mid-term primary, only one in three registered voters took the time to cast a ballot. Among eligible voters, the statewide turnout was only one in four. This means that in a state of 38 million residents, major decisions are being made by just 4.5 million voters. Pretty sad.

The risk, of course, of pointing out once again the dysfunctionality of the state Legislature is to minimize the extent of the state’s fiscal troubles. What California is facing right now is unprecedented. But the fact is the governor and state Legislature have done little to address the fundamental problems associated with the state’s funding crisis. The state needs a more reliable source of income rather than depending so heavily on personal incomes, and especially capital gains, to make or break its budget. It needs tax reform. It needs pension reform. And it needs political reform, to loosen the grips of special interests – from business groups to the right to labor groups to the left – that insist on the status quo.

In essence, we live in a time that requires remarkable leaders to emerge from a political system that necessitates mediocrity and extremism.

Proposition 14, which is based on an open primary system in the state of Washington, won’t get California away from all that. But it’s a step in the right direction – probably the most hopeful step voters can take on Tuesday.

– Paul Gullixson