How partisan primaries weaken the political center - Open Primaries
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How partisan primaries weaken the political center

Posted by jesse shayne on November 15, 2017 at 4:03 PM

How partisan primaries weaken the political center

This article was written by Brian Dickerson for the Detroit Free Press

Last week brought mixed tidings for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer.

The good news is that a MIRS/Target Insyght pollreleased last week shows her beating six prospective rivals (including three who have not entered the race for governor) among Democrats most likely to participate in next August's party primary.

The bad news is that a second Target Insyght survey suggests that one of those undeclared candidates, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, would do considerably better in a general election match-up with state Attorney General Bill Schuette, the current frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

It would be foolish to pay too much attention to these early polling results, but no one should be surprised to learn that the partisan primary process may fail to deliver the Democratic candidate with the strongest general election appeal.

That's what partisan primaries have been doing for years in Michigan, and in the rest of the country. I've seen no recent public polling that measures Schuette's general election appeal against other Republicans', but I suspect U.S. Rep. Fred Upton and his former congressional colleague Candice Miller would both fare better than Schuette in a general election match-up with Whitmer.

And that's why the current partisan primary system is likely to exacerbate our state's already crippling political polarization, disenfranchise moderate voters, and perpetuate the partisan gridlock that has stymied sensible governance in Lansing and Washington.

Rigged against the middle

We like to believe that partisan primaries are the the political equivalent of the playoffs that take place each fall in Major League Baseball's National and American leagues, yielding each league's strongest contender for the World Series.

But that's not how the partisan primary system works.

Not surprisingly, the relative handful of Michigan voters who turn out for the partisan primaries in which both major parties choose their nominees for gubernatorial and congressional races is much smaller, and much more partisan, than the larger electorate that participates in the November general election.

The same holds true for the Republican primary process, in which moderate candidates are likely to be denounced as RINOs and elbowed aside by more conservative rivals.

A fiscally conservative Democratic candidate or a pro-choice Republican might appeal to the large and diverse November electorate. But neither has much chance of surviving the partisan vetting process that would earn them a place on the November ballot.

It's as if the strongest team in the National League were disqualified from participating in the World Series because it had too many fans in American League cities.

Another path

But what if Michigan primaries were redesigned to select the two candidates with the broadest appeal to the November electorate, no matter which party those candidates identified with?

That's exactly what happens in California, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington, where all the candidates in at least some races compete in non-partisan primary contests. The top two finishers go on to compete in the general election runoff, even if both finishers belong to the same political party.

Top-two primaries have been credited with generating more competitive general election contests, especially in heavily gerrymandered states where most legislative or congressional districts have been configured to maximize the number of reliably Democratic or Republican seats.

In California, for instance, top-two primaries in heavily gerrymandered districts often beget general election match-ups between two Republicans or two Democrats. If that sounds boring, consider what happens now in lopsided congressional districts like Michigan's 14th (which snakes northwest from Detroit to Pontiac to encompass the maximum number of Democratic voters) or the overwhelmingly Republican 2nd. Neither venue has had a competitive general election since the congressional boundaries were last redrawn in 2011.

A study by the advocacy group Open Primaries asserts that nonpartisan top-two primaries have bequeathed more competitive races, higher voter participation, and less polarized legislatures in which bipartisan coalitions frequently trump party discipline.

Other reformers have proposed a non-partisan primary variant in which the top four finishers compete in a general election run-off, again without regard to party affiliation.

Defending the status quo

Know who hates the non-partisan primary idea? Political parties and incumbent office-holders, both of whom have lost their hammerlock on the political process in states that have adopted the top-two finisher primary scheme.

But who cares about them? The most recent polling data reveals that a plurality of American voters -- about 45% -- no longer identify with any political party. That's larger than the percentages who consider themselves Republicans or Democrats.

Among younger voters, the partisan disconnect is even more pronounced, with fully half of millennial voters calling themselves independents.

The recognition that this pox-on-both-your-houses sentiment is growing has only made leaders in both major political parties more determined to defend their privileged position as general election gatekeepers. So don't look for Michigan's congressional delegation or the state Legislature to take the lead in pioneering innovations designed to make the process more competitive, or less partisan.

But grass-roots organizations or constitutional revision commissions in several other states are giving the nonpartisan primary concept a closer look. And if the citizens spearheading a ballot initiative to loosen partisan control of Michigan's redistricting process prevail in 2018, the nonpartisan primary might be a good next stop on the road to ending partisan gridlock and restoring functional democracy in our state.


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