Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer wants to end party primaries

July 22, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Ky.) listens to remarks from fellow Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) during a news conference. (EPA/Michael Reynolds)

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) blames the polarization that has gripped Washington in part on primaries that are only open to candidates of a particular political affiliation.

Schumer's solution: Be more like California, which uses an all-party primary system.

"From 10,000 feet, the structure of our electorate looks to be healthy, with perhaps a third of the potential voters who are left-leaning Democrats, a third who are right-leaning Republicans and a third who are independents in the middle," writes Schumer in a New York Times op-ed.

Party primaries, he adds, "poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance, because the vast majority of Americans don’t typically vote."

Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, blames special interest money driving candidates at extreme ends of the political spectrum and partisan redistricting for making the problem even worse.

His proposed remedy: A "national movement" to put in place a top-two primary system like the one in California. It works like this: All candidates compete in the same primary. The top two vote-getters -- regardless of party affiliation -- advance to the general election.

"This would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle," writes Schumer.

California's top-two system has come under some criticism. Pete Aguilar, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 31st district, told The Washington Post that he's not a fan. In 2o12, Aguilar and his party were shut out of the general election because of a vote split between several candidates. It was considered a debacle for the party, considering  how far to the left the district leans as a whole.

It nearly happened to Aguilar again this year. He barely advanced to the general election this time, finishing second.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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