William ‘Boss’ Tweed, who ran the Democratic Party machine in New York in the 19th century, famously declared, “I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating.” Sadly, this quote still applies to how our primary process is run today.
Our current primary system has a number of drawbacks. Since partisan gerrymandering has resulted in the vast majority of districts being “safe,” and only a small percentage of party voters show up for primaries, it results in increasingly extreme candidates making it to the general election. It disproportionately empowers partisan gatekeepers, who largely decide the candidates that receive support and publicity. And, it does a poor job of reflecting the true preferences of the voters in a district.
We need to move to a system where primaries are nonpartisan - everyone who wants to run for a given office enters the same primary, and the top vote getters move on to the general election. Candidates could identify themselves with a party or not.
California and Washington have already implemented top-two primaries, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. In some districts, that means the top 2 candidates from the same party run against each other in the general. Members of the party will have more choice, and members of other parties will feel more connected, and less divided from, the eventual winner of the election. When the top 2 candidates are from different parties, a familiar general election dynamic plays out, albeit usually with more moderate candidates.
California made this change in 2012 and the results have been compelling. The number of races deemed competitive immediately doubled. Legislators seemed to notice and became more responsive. The approval rating of California’s legislature shot up from 10% in 2010 to 50% in 2016.
The relative losers of this shift would be incumbents and political party insiders who right now control the process very tightly. The winners would be the voters and the public.
Note: this reform requires the implementation of Ranked-Choice Voting.
Problems to be Solved:
- Closed primaries give political parties outsized interest in who gets to run in the general election.
- Closed primaries put the decision on who ends up on the ballot in the hands of the 10% of each party who tend towards the extremes.
- The vast majority of districts being “safe” means that, by the time most voters make their voices heard, the winner has already been decided.
“Party primaries disenfranchise the majority of voters. In 80 percent of cases the general election is essentially a foreordained conclusion. Non-major-party candidates are regarded as a 'waste' of a vote and can never compete.”
- Implement a Final Five Nonpartisan Primary system in as many jurisdictions as possible.
- Allow all candidates to run together in the same primary, with all voters getting a voice in who will run in the general.
- Tie this reform together with Ranked-Choice Voting so that candidates are required to build a broad coalition in order to succeed in the primary and general elections.
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