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The Case for Non-Partisan Primaries

by Indy, published

Throughout this year's election season, talk of the pitfalls of partisanship permeated the national conversation while the citizenry lauded candidates who pledged to tear down barriers and end politics as usual. The prospect of change spurred an inordinate share of voters to shun party loyalty and embrace pragmatism.

The election became a resounding critique of the ultraistic policies and parochial doctrines that crippled a national economy and alienated large segments of the populace.

But the elocution of our aspiring representation fell short. The debates and town hall sessions failed to address the structural flaws in the electoral process that impede participation and fuel partisan quibbling. One such defect is the way we choose our candidates.

We do ourselves a disservice by granting political parties the responsibility of selecting our public office applicant pools. Limiting our choices according to party affiliation (or lack thereof) creates a potential obstacle to voting one’s better judgment. Closed-primaries hold leaders accountable only to members of their party rather than the diversified electorate.

Such a system is prone to causing rifts between constituents and leadership and dissenting voices are muffled in the process. Policymakers take office with partial mandates while voters from the losing parties put their demands on hold until the next election.

A few states have chosen to tackle the problem by instituting practical electoral reforms. Among them, the state of Washington is setting an example with promising new steps toward non-partisan elections. If California’s passage of Proposition 11 (the redistricting measure) serves as a bellwether, then current efforts to adopt Washington’s method may prove successful.

In October, Steve Peace, a former member of the state Legislature and chairman of the California Independent Voter Project, submitted a proposal to the attorney general’s office that would model our elections after Washington’s top-two primary.

Under the top-two primary system, voters would not declare their party membership as a prerequisite to casting ballots for candidates seeking state office. The two candidates receiving the most votes would advance to the general election.

Supporters of the measure contend that eliminating partisan registration would increase cooperation across party lines. Governor Schwarzenegger, who recently made an executive order forcing the Legislature to expedite an agreement on the state budget, supports the initiative.

The initiative is not entirely new to the state. In March of 1996 voters passed similar reforms with Proposition 198. Four years later, after much opposition from political parties, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Political parties likely fear that independent voters and members of other camps would be able to influence their candidates’ chances of advancing to the general election. Perhaps, but it is more likely the change would force frontrunners from major parties to offer platforms with measurably pluralistic visions. This might increase the probability of say, a Republican candidate in Sacramento weighing the demands of Peace and Freedom Party voters.

Let’s be frank. Party identity ain’t what it used to be.

An article Time Magazine entitled The New Liberal Order cited a 2005 Pew Research Center survey that “identified a new group of voters it called ‘pro-government conservatives’”. The term refers to an emerging faction of conservatives who break from tradition by “endorsing government regulation and government spending.”

Our political climate is evolving in a way that rejects the politics of immoderacy. Now we must ensure our electoral process advances in a manner that reflects this progress.

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