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Why are we in this mess?

It’s not because political leaders are corrupt, venal or lazy.  By any measure corruption is low.  With few exceptions, political leaders try hard.
It’s not because voters don’t go “all in” with one party or the other. One of the two major political parties sometimes has enough power to push major policy changes through, but that kind of dominant power doesn’t last. In fact, the pendulum between one major political party and the other swings back and forth more quickly than it used to. Today’s majority party is tomorrow’s minority party, if not in the White House or the governor’s mansion, then in one or both of the houses of Congress or the legislature.

It isn’t - despite what the soap-box entertainers on cable TV say – because one major political party is always right; the other always wrong. There are good ideas – breathtakingly good ideas – among members of each major political party, ideas that can’t get traction in DC or Denver.

It’s not because citizens are disengaged. Voter turnout in presidential elections in the past few contests has been higher than in decades.
It’s not that no one has answers to the most vexing problems. Between elected leaders, public officials,  think-tanks, academia, and engaged citizens there are ingenious proposals to tackle every major public policy challenge the country and Colorado faces.

The problem is that in order for an idea to gain currency in the corridors of power, it must be embraced by one of the country’s two major political parties. And once it is, the other reflexively opposes it. The fight then rages, with each side expending a sizeable chunk of  its time and recourses not in building bridges or searching for compromises, but in throwing the political equivalent of rotten tomatoes, as often and as hard as they can. 

Changing that dynamic doesn’t require abandoning democracy or capitalism. It doesn’t require election gimmicks. It doesn’t require spending a dime of taxpayer money. It doesn’t require throwing every public official out of office. It doesn’t require blowing up either or both of the two major political parties. It doesn’t require writing a single piece of federal legislation.

All it requires is taking a scalpel to state election law, and adopting a new system of conducting elections, what would be the first new system in Colorado since the current system was adopted more than 100 years ago.

    The key to designing a new election system that would produce political leaders capable of solving the significant public-sector problems is to start by looking at the make-up of the leaders elected under the current system. Here’s one way of charting what Congress looks like, beginning with what it looked like in 1985. This is from a chart drawn by University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket. The horizontal axis ranks congressman by the percentage of the vote won by the major presidential candidates in the prior presidential election; the vertical axis ranks them by their votes on a conservative to liberal scale.

Here’s what a similar chart for the 2012 Congress looks like: Click here to view the chart

The charts show the predictable clustering of congressmen along party lines. They also show the disappearance of a political center.  In fact, the  center is not represented – at all – in Congress. It’s not that it’s under-represented. It’s that’s it’s not there. There is nothing there. There is no center.

 Here’s another way of dissecting Congress. The Congressional Quarterly tracks the number of roll-call votes in which most members of one of the two major parties are on the opposite side of the other. That was the outcome in 37 percent of the roll-call votes in 1981, indicating that party membership trumped policy differences in about a third of the votes. By 2011, that happened in 76 percent of the roll call votes. 

Here’s another graphical illustration of the same problem: Click here to view the chart

Here's yet another graphical illustration of the same problem in the Senate: Click Here to View the chart

The problem gets worse with every election. Among the 20 most centrist members of Congress who were running for re-election in 2012, only eight won. There were  26 House districts that in 2010-2011 were represented by a member of a party other than the dominant political party as indicated by voter registration. In the current Congress there are only 10 such districts.

The Colorado legislature has the same problem. As measured by two academics (Shor, Boris and McCarty, Nolan, The Ideological Mapping of American Legislatures (May 25, 2011)). American Political Science Review (August 2011), 105:3, pp. 530-551. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1676863 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1676863), the Colorado legislature is the third most polarized in the country:

Click here to view the chart

This hyper-polarization would not be much of a concern if it accurately reflected the American electorate. Have citizens moved farther to the left and right on the political spectrum?

Pollsters say ‘No.”  Norton Garfinkel and Daniel Yankelovich wrote in Uniting America in 2005, “Embracing ideological extremes is… far more characteristic of our intellectual elites than of the general public. On issues like abortion, crime and vouchers, the almost invariable pattern among the public is 5 to 15 percent on each extreme, leaving the vast 70 to 90 percent majority in the muddy middle.”

Citizens say “no,” too. They’re polled every presidential election year as part of the  American National Election Studies and asked to rate themselves on the political spectrum. The study’s authors divide the citizenry into seven categories, with one in the direct center (“independent independents”), and three each on the political left and right (“independent,” “weak” and “strong” Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right).

    This chart compares the results for 1952 and 2008.

1952:                                                                         2008
SD: 23                                                                           19
WD: 26                                                                          15
ID: 10                                                                            17
II: 5                                                                                11
IR: 8                                                                              12
WR: 14                                                                          13
SR: 14                                                                            13

During this 56-year period, the number of Americans who self-identified themselves as independent, weak or strong Democrats declined by 14 percent, while the number of independent, weak and strong Republicans increased by eight percent. The only significant changes involved expansion of the political center: the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as in the direct center more than doubled (to 11 from 5 percent), and the number in the three centrist categories almost doubled:
1952:  23 percent
2008: 40 percent

    So by these two measures, the political make-up of Congress has moved in almost precisely the opposite direction of the electorate. It has become more divided and polarized, while the electorate has become more moderate. How did that happen?

There’s no hocus-pocus involved. The current election system intensifies the power of those at the political extremes at the expense of those in the center with a system built with two lynchpins:

•    Gerrymandering, the system by which political party leaders protect their interests by drawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts to boost their parties’  ability to win in certain districts, while all but ceding other districts to their political rivals.
•    Primary elections, the process by which major political parties nominate candidates in government-run elections, with the nominees winning spots on the general election ballot.

The biggest problems created  by gerrymandering are well known among even the most disengaged citizens: weirdly-shaped districts that lump together citizens who have no common community or geographical interests, protection for incumbents that force challengers from other parties to face long odds even before campaigning starts, and general elections that have no meaning because the number of voters in most districts from one of the two major political parties are such that a candidate from the “other” party stands almost no chance.

The problems with primary elections are less well known, because party activists and elected officials don’t have any incentive to call attention to them. They include the fact that with primaries:

•    tax funds are used to run them, even though these elections are private political activities of private organizations, a disbursement that overwhelmingly benefits only the two dominant political parties because they have the most contested races.

•     rules and regulations concerning how parties submit the names of candidates for the primary election ballot are imposed by government, even though how private political parties decide which candidates to back should be their business and their business alone.

•     independents have no role because they’re not allowed to vote, which has become a bigger problem over the years as more voters have registered as independents.

•     major party candidates gain an artificial boost from the “funnel effect” in which primaries run by government signal voters which candidates are the favorites in the general election even though these candidates have done nothing more than win the nomination of the members of their party.

•    turnout is horrifically low, especially in Colorado.

(as %  of voting-age population)
1910s: 20 percent
1920s:  23 percent
1930s: 29 percent
1940s: 23 percent
1950s: 23 percent
1960s: 20 percent
1970s: 14 percent
1980s: 12 percent
1990s: 12 percent
2000s: 11 percent

2010: 20 percent, which meant that even in a year when there were sharply contested primary contests for high-profile, statewide offices in each major political party (US Senate for the Democrats, and governor and US Senate for the Republicans), only one in five adults bothered to register and vote.

2012: 14 percent

Moreover, Colorado primary election turnout is consistently among the lowest in the country. Here are numbers compiled by Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, covering only elections in which there were competitive primary contests in at least one statewide race:

1930s: Colorado ranked 14th of 16 states (national average 36 percent).
1950s: Colorado ranked 20 of 21 states (national average 30 percent). 
1970s: Colorado ranked 21 of 30 states (national average 26 percent).
1990s: Colorado ranked 26th of 27 states (national average 21 percent).
2000s: Colorado ranked 24th of 25 (national average 18 percent).

Partisans argue that it’s inappropriate to judge primary elections on the basis of turnout by all voters because by design primary elections are only for party members. But in that case, why are taxpayers paying for them? As long as tax dollars are being used, the question ought to be : Why are we paying for elections even though almost no one participates?

Why is Colorado primary election turnout so low? It’s NOT because residents are tuning out elections. General election turnout in Colorado was 54 percent of the voting age population during the Aughts (2000-2008), a 13 percent increase over the prior decade that made the difference between the primary and the general election turnout (43 percent) the highest in state history.

Voter turnout in Colorado primary elections is low because

•    Judicial elections used to be decided in primary elections.

•    The voting age was lowered effective in 1972, and 18-21 year olds are less vested in political parties than older adults.

•    Party leaders discourage primary contests  more than they used to because of the increasingly widespread view that divisive primary contests hurt candidates heading in general elections.

•    With almost every year, more Coloradans register as independents, which prohibit them from voting in the primary elections, meaning that fewer voters are eligible to participate in primary elections. In fact, for the first time in Colorado’s history the number of unaffiliated voters exceeded the number of Democrats and Republicans in 2008, something that has remained true ever since (counting active and inactive voters).

The consequences of low turnout are that:

•    Strident partisan purists get clout out of proportion to their numbers because they are most likely to vote in primaries.

•    Primary election winners are far more likely to be from the outer half of their political party ideologically (i.e., more conservative or more liberal) than from the inner half.

•    Candidates who are from the inner ideological half of their political parties are far less likely to run because they know primary election voters are going to represent the outer half of their party and, if they run, they are more likely to lose than candidates from the outer half.

•    Candidates are more likely to engage in “zigzag” behavior as they advocate strongly partisan positions in the primary election and then moderate their positions to appeal to a broad base in the general election, forcing them to become political chameleons, changing their stripes as best they can depending on which part of the election cycle they’re in.

•    Office holders are more concerned about being “primaried” – that is, facing stiff competition from another member of their political party in a primary election -  than they are about winning the general election, which, in turn, makes them far more likely to cast votes designed to protect themselves from challenges from within their party than from the other party, which, in turn, makes them more likely to have little or no interest in building bridges to members of the other major party, the kinds of bridges required to get legislation passed.

•    General election voters are given choices by the two major political parties that are less likely to represent their views, and they are therefore less likely to vote.

•    The citizens who do participate in the political process are more likely to retreat into their respective political comfort-zones, forgiving their candidates for sins that prompt non-voting independents to be non-voting independents, listening to only those who reinforce their political views, and arming themselves for the rhetorical battles that arise anytime they discuss politics with anyone other than their political bedfellows.

The problems created by primary elections are recognized in every major segment of the political class, including Republicans (for example, former GOP Congressman Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, “Because activists who demand loyalty and see compromising as selling out dominate party primaries and conventions, candidates who seek their permission to be on the ballot find themselves under great pressure to take hard-line positions. This tendency toward rigidity,,, is at the root of today’s political dysfunction”), Democrats (For example former Oregon secretary of state Phil Keisling, “The primary system gives disproportionate power to the shrillest and most mean-spirited of our partisans, while preventing civil dialogue and progress on a host of important issues.),  independents (Wilson International Center scholar Linda Killian in The Swing Vote cites election law preventing independents from voting in primaries as one of the reasons so few independents get elected, writing “A big part of ten problem is the stranglehold that the two parties have on the political process.”), and academics (see “Activists and Conflict Extension in American Party Politics,” American Political Science Review, May, 2010, with five co-authors, “Because of activists’ importance in today’s nomination and election politics, the multidimensional growth of party activist polarization has helped to extend partisan conflict between the parties in government and in the mass electorate, ” and Stanford University political science professor Morris Fiorina in “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, “Americans contrast the environments in which they live their lives with a political order dominated by activists and elected officials who behave like squabbling children in a crowded sandbox.”).

Primary  elections have outlived their usefulness. They hamstring the major political parties and their candidates, and they are one of the two lynchpins in an election system that almost guarantees a collection of leaders who cannot and will not reach across the aisle to enact the major policy changes required to solve the country’s problems because they are not given any motivation to do so.

There is one solution that simultaneously targets both lynchpins of this hackneyed political system: abolish primary elections.

Before considering the benefits, consider what should be adopted in its place. Not open primaries, in which any registered voter gets to help any – but only one - political party nominate candidates (only party members should be able to do that) or blanket primaries, in which any voter can vote for anyone on the primary ballot (again, only party members should be able to nominate that party’s candidates). And not what Louisiana, Washington and California have done and what Arizona rejected last year: the top-two system. In that system, candidates compete against each other regardless of party affiliation in a preliminary round of elections, with the top two finishers then competing in the general election. Given the strength of the two major political parties, one would expect that in competitive legislative and congressional districts the candidates who advance would invariably be either a Democrat and a Republican, which is no different than the outcome – by definition – in a system that uses primary elections, or two members of the same major party, in which case voters who aren’t members of that party are disenfranchised in the general election.  The leaders of the political parties in Washington and California led the efforts to end primary elections in those states and replace them with the “top-two candidates advance” system. It preserved the status quo for them, while deflecting the potentially dramatic changes that abolishing primary elections would otherwise create. So the end result was something that looked like political reform but wasn’t.

Colorado can easily do better. Much better.

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