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 werent so gerrymandered in the redistricting process every 10 years, moderation and across-the-aisle deal-making wouldnt be so rare.
But theres another solution to the partisan extremism that seems to dominate Congress today, one thats already in practice in two states: A top-two primary system, one that gives candidates an incentive in even the most conservative or liberal districts to appeal to the vast middle, which otherwise plays a limited role in picking members of Congress.
In California and Washington state, that 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 doesnt 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 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 isnt in open warfare with the other side, that person must be a squish, and partisan bases quickly replace squishes with hard-liners.
Thats 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, theyll be less likely to position themselves on the political extremes and more likely to want to be seen as bipartisan problem-solvers.
Heres 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 then 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.
In California, a lawsuit over the system 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 9th Circuit Court cited the Supreme Courts decision in striking down Washingtons blanket primary.
No more party lines
Good-government groups in both states spent years trying to find ways around the Supreme Courts decision, in hopes of reopening the primaries. 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 top vote-earners advancing 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. California passed its own version 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 Inslees name appeared alongside the designation Prefers Democratic Party, while Rob McKenna, the states attorney general at the time, was listed as Prefers Republican Party.
Appealing to voters
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 Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott retires, candidates who hope to replace him will run in a liberal district based in north Seattle, but they cant just be the most liberal candidate in the field. After all, 18 percent of voters in McDermotts 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 thats otherwise parroting the same talking points.
Likewise, when Republican Rep. Doc Hastings 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 Barack Obama, and the moderates who voted for Romney.
Theres even more of a reason to reach out to the middle in highly partisan districts. Under the Washington and California rules, the top two vote-getters advance to a general election – even if theyre 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 Californias 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; Rep. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, two Democrats who fought an expensive battle over a district based in liberal Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, touted support from local Republicans. 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 voters in his district who voted for Romney. 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.