A solution for hyper-partisanship

Intransigent, political polarization has become the ugly, non-productive norm in American politics. For an example, look no further than the virulent, partisan fight over healthcare reform, which passed with not a single Republican vote. What happened to the moderate middle, and what can be done to stem the radicalization of America’s political parties?

Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State, says that the culprit is our system of party-based primary elections.  He wants to eliminate them, substituting statewide, “fully open, top/two primaries.” He can explain his rationale and the historical context far better than I can, so here’s the full text of his op-ed, published in the New York Times on March 23.

From now to September, virtually every state will hold primaries to select Democratic and Republican candidates for the November general election. At stake are 36 Senate and 435 Congressional seats, along with 37 governorships and more than 6,000 state legislative seats.

What can we likely expect? Abysmal voter turnout; incessant waves of shrill, partisan invective; and legions of pandering politicians making blatant appeals to party extremists. Once you understand the role that party primary elections really play, and who votes and doesn’t, the real question isn’t why our politics are so dysfunctional — it’s how could they not be?

The current party primary system was actually reformist, an early 20th-century innovation to replace the smoke-filled backrooms of party bosses. Though party leaders fought this effort, within a generation it and the direct election of senators eventually swept the country — and improved our politics considerably.

But a century later, this reform has outgrown its usefulness. We are left with a system in which almost every state still outsources its elections to what are actually private organizations. With the approval of the Supreme Court, the parties have the authority to exclude independent voters or other non-members who might seriously challenge their partisan shibboleths or taboos.

Some state parties deign to allow non-members to participate in their primaries. But very few independents bother. Most party members don’t, either. In 2006, during the last non-presidential primary cycle, most states had turnouts of only 15 percent to 30 percent of registered voters (New York had less than 5 percent). So far, the 2010 primary cycle has shown a new low of 23 percent in Illinois, and 16.5 percent in Texas, a record high for that state.

So what can be done? States should scrap this anachronistic system and replace it with a “fully open/top two” primary. All candidates would run in a first round, “qualifying” election, with the top two finalists earning the chance to compete head-to-head in November. Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Tea-Partiers, even “None of the Above’s” could all run in the first round. Voters would certainly know candidates’ party affiliations, but no political party would automatically be entitled to a spot on the November ballot.

This would create far more races that were truly competitive, especially across the vast majority of lopsided districts where winning the party primary essentially guarantees election. In those districts, both finalists might be from the same party, but there could be genuine differences between the two that would give voters a meaningful choice.

Of course, it’s likely that the finalists of most qualifying elections would still be a Democrat and a Republican. But these candidates often would be (or, at least, act) different than those produced by partisan primaries. Gone would be the ideological purity tests of primaries, which more and more punish the Republican concerned with global warming or the Democrat wrestling with eye-popping budget deficits. Candidates wouldn’t have to practice the dark arts of the “message zigzag,” securing the base then feinting to the center. A system without partisan primaries would reward candidates who work, from Day 1, to appeal openly and forthrightly to the broadest group of voters.

To replace party primaries with this fairer election system requires no federal legislation, or even any changes to most state Constitutions. State legislators or voters could do it with simple, majority votes, as Washington State voters did in 2006. This June, California voters will have a chance to become the second state free of party primaries — a move favored by 68 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats there, according to a recent poll. I myself was the chief petitioner of an unsuccessful ballot measure to change Oregon’s system in 2008. I hope we’ll have another chance here.

The primary system gives disproportionate power to the shrillest and most mean-spirited of our partisans, while preventing civil dialogue and progress on a host of important issues. But a “fully open/top two” system would empower every American to be able to vote for the best candidate in every election. That is as good and achievable an antidote to what now ails the body politic as our democracy can hope for.