The solution to hyper-partisanship already exists, and it doesn’t involve gerrymandering

October 18, 2013

The latest game of political chicken that drove Washington to a government shutdown and the very edge of the debt ceiling gave new life to the omnipresent complaint of elder statesmen and centrist wise guys: If only Congressional districts weren’t so gerrymandered in the decennial redistricting process, moderation and across-the-aisle deal-making wouldn’t be so rare.

But there’s another solution to the partisan extremism that seems to dominate Congress today, one that’s already in practice in two states: A top-two primary system, one that incentivizes candidates in even the most conservative or liberal districts to appeal to the vast middle that otherwise plays a limited role in picking members of Congress.

In California and Washington state, that top-two system is already in effect. And in both states, the hard right and the hard left have seen their influence wane.

The problem, as reformers see it: Partisan gerrymandering has led to Congressional districts in which one party is so dominant that whichever candidate they nominate will win in November. About three-quarters of all districts, according to some estimates, are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic that the other party doesn’t have the slightest hope. So candidates from the dominant party have an incentive to align themselves with the partisan base that will turn out in a primary. Only hard-core partisans vote in a primary, meaning those candidates are playing to the extremes of either party — Republicans try to be the most conservative candidate in the field in deep-red districts, while Democrats try to be the most liberal candidate in sky-blue districts. The districts are drawn in such a way that there aren’t enough independents and voters of the minority party to punish extremism on either side.

The partisan bases that control those primaries are so deeply polarized, and hate the other side so much, that office-holders are discouraged from working across the aisle. In modern politics, if an elected official isn’t in open warfare with the other side, they must be a squish, and partisan bases quickly replace squishes with hard-liners. That’s hardly an incentive to work constructively with members of the other party on the major problems facing the nation.

The solution to that problem involves empowering voters in the middle of the political spectrum. If elected officials are held accountable to a wider swath of the electorate, the theory goes, they’ll be less likely to position themselves on the political extremes, and more likely to want to be seen as bipartisan problem-solvers.

Here’s how California and Washington got the middle involved: Both states used to have what election officials dubbed the “blanket primary.” Instead of choosing a Democratic primary ballot or a Republican primary ballot, voters could vote for any candidate in any race, across party lines — say, a Democrat for governor, a Republican for Senate, a Libertarian for county commissioner, a Green Party candidate for city council. The top vote-getter in each party would advance to the general election.

The two major parties hated the blanket primary. Party officials wanted more control over the primaries that chose their nominees; why, they argued, should a voter not affiliated with the Democratic Party get to choose the Democratic nominee for governor? Why should a Green Party member or a Libertarian have just as much say in choosing the Republican nominee for Senate as a Republican voter?

Above all, why shouldn’t the party be allowed to decide which candidates they want to affiliate with? If a Neo-Nazi running for some local office wanted to call himself a Democrat or a Republican, shouldn’t the parties be allowed to disassociate themselves from that person?

After California voters instituted the blanket primary in 1996, the parties filed a lawsuit. The case, California Democratic Party v. Jones, made its way to the Supreme Court in 2000, where Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 7-2 majority opinion that the blanket primary violated the political parties’ First Amendment rights of association.

The blanket primary “forces political parties to associate with — to have their nominees, and hence their positions, determined by — those who, at best, have refused to affiliate with the party, and, at worst, have expressly affiliated with a rival,” Scalia wrote (The parties argued that some voters from the other side of the aisle would maliciously vote for the worst possible candidate in hopes of sabotage). The Ninth Circuit court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in striking down Washington’s blanket primary.

Good-government groups in both states spent years trying to find ways around the Supreme Court’s decision, in hopes of reopening the primaries. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) led the charge; in Washington, it was the Washington State Grange, an organization of farmers that had sponsored the original initiative that created the blanket primary in the 1930s.

The key, they decided, was to officially disregard party affiliations altogether. Candidates could express a party preference on the ballot, without declaring themselves to be a member of one party or another. Instead of advancing the top vote-earners by party — one Republican, one Democrat, one Libertarian, etc. — only the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election.

Washington State voters approved a top-two primary system by a 20-point margin in 2004. The Supreme Court ruled in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party that the system was constitutional, because candidates weren’t actually declaring their own party affiliation. California passed its own version of the blanket primary in 2010.

Today, voters in Washington and California can once again vote for any candidate in a primary. On the 2012 ballot in Washington, gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee’s name appeared alongside the designation “Prefers Democratic Party,” while Rob McKenna, the state’s attorney general at the time, was listed as “Prefers Republican Party.”

(Because candidates get to state their own preference, minor parties don’t have to worry about qualifying for the ballot. That lowers the barrier to entry for Libertarians and Greens, but it also allows candidates to pick some funny names. A candidate for lieutenant governor in Washington state said he preferred the “Neopopulist Party”; a legislative candidate in Seattle claimed she preferred the “Hope&change Party” [sic]; a state Senate candidate in 2008 won 642 votes after declaring he preferred the “Salmon Yoga Party,” which frankly sounds fun and delicious.)

All this means is that candidates vying for a Congressional seat in Washington and California have a wider audience to account for than they would in a closed primary. When Rep. Jim McDermott (D) retires, candidates who hope to replace him will run in a liberal district based in north Seattle, but they can’t just be the most liberal candidate in the field. After all, 18 percent of voters in McDermott’s district voted for Mitt Romney. In a crowded primary, a Democrat who can reach out to those Republican voters can distinguish himself or herself from a field that’s otherwise parroting the same talking points.

Likewise, when Rep. Doc Hastings (R) retires, the candidates who hope to represent his Central Washington district — the most Republican in the state — would do well to try to peel off some of the 38 percent of voters who cast a ballot for President Obama, and the moderates who voted for Romney.

There’s even more of a reason to reach out to the middle in highly partisan districts. Let’s stick with McDermott’s and Hastings’ districts for a moment: Under the Washington and California rules, the top two vote-getters advance to a general election — even if they’re both members of the same party. That means voters in Seattle might have to choose between two Democrats, while voters in Central Washington might have to choose between two Republicans. The broader electorate that shows up to vote in November means those two Democrats or two Republicans need to find their votes among independents, moderates and even — perish the thought — voters of the opposite party.

That actually happened in a number of races in California back in 2012. General elections in eight of California’s 53 districts featured two members of the same party that year. And in several of those contests, candidates made overt efforts to reach out to the other side; Reps. Brad Sherman (D) and Howard Berman (D), who fought an expensive battle over a district based in liberal Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, touted support from local Republicans. Berman received endorsements from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), while Sherman locked up support from a number of local Republican elected officials (Sherman went on to win by 20 points).

Sherman is no less a liberal than he was before he had to compete for the 32 percent of Romney voters in his district. And two Democrats — Reps. Pete Stark and Joe Baca — actually lost to more liberal challengers, now-Reps. Eric Swalwell and Gloria Negrete McLeod, under the top-two system. But in most districts, there are sufficient numbers of moderate voters that simply being the most liberal or most conservative candidate in a primary will be less of a winning formula.

In fact, even in gerrymandered districts, moderate — or at least less ideological — tendencies emerge. Washington’s 10 Congressional districts are still pretty gerrymandered; six of the state’s 10 districts are reliably Democratic, and three are pretty reliably Republican (When Rep. Dave Reichert retires, expect an all-out war over his district, which went narrowly for President Obama in 2012, but it’s unlikely any of the 10 incumbents will be a top takeover target in 2014).

Despite their security, only one of the 10 members from Washington — McDermott — falls on the extremes of the ideological spectrum in Congress. According to National Journal’s annual vote rankings, McDermott is the 58th-most liberal member of the House. All seven other members National Journal ranked are less ideological than at least 100 other members of their own parties (Reps. Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck, both freshman Democrats, aren’t ranked in the 2012 rankings).

Here’s another measure of the reduced incentive to be hyper-partisan: Of the 80 House Republicans who signed a letter demanding House Speaker John Boehner threaten to shut down the government unless Democrats agreed to defund the Affordable Care Act, only three came from California, all from conservative districts along the rural border with Nevada. None came from Washington.

Members who signed Rep. Mark Meadows’s (R-N.C.) letter to Speaker Boehner:



(Graphic: The New Yorker)

The incentive to spark partisan warfare, and the disincentive to work with members of the other party, dissolves along with the incentive to appeal strictly to the party base. When members of Congress have to appeal to moderates and voters in the other party not once, but twice, they begin to value their bipartisan credentials even more. In hyper-partisan districts, the presence of at least some small slice of moderates also reduces the threat a member faces from a primary challenger who tries to outflank an incumbent. Perhaps most importantly for leaders of both parties, redistricting reform can put seats at risk, in a way top-two primaries don’t.

Reformers who want to avoid the next game of political chicken might want to look to the top-two primary system, rather than redistricting reform. It could return an attitude of civility to a Congress rife with partisan warfare.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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