Removing the Nuts

by Michelle Cottle | May 17, 2010

Charlie Crist has fled the GOP. John McCain has sold his maverick soul. Bob Bennett just got throttled by conservatives. Michele Bachmann is occasionally taken seriously. As Tea Partiers impose purity tests on Republican pols and the party’s center is dragged ever further right, is it any wonder many people are bemoaning the death of bipartisanship and moderation in American politics?

Every election cycle, a few charismatic candidates (especially at the presidential level) exploit voters’ disillusionment by promising to change the tone, ease the polarization, stem the partisan bile, and otherwise end politics as we know it. But under the current system, that is never going to happen. Ever. Congressional districts are drawn to feed polarization, and party primaries are dominated by wingers from both ends of the spectrum, making it tough for candidates with more mainstream appeal to advance to the generals. For any real shake-up to occur, a significant structural overhaul is needed. I’m opening the floor to any and all suggestions. In the meantime, one possibility I’d like to see chewed over: replacing party-based primaries with nonpartisan jungle primaries, also known as Louisiana primaries.

Yeah. I know. It feels so very wrong to suggest that other states take any cues from the corrupt, screwed-up politics of the Bayou State. Crazier still, the Louisiana system—which pits all candidates regardless of party against one another in the initial primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the final showdown—was introduced by legendary Governor Edwin Edwards, a man known as much for his ethical flexibility as his political prowess. (The four-term governor is currently serving a 10-year sentence for racketeering.) A Democrat, Edwards pushed for jungle primaries as a way to stem the rise of the state GOP. (In fact, while the system boosted Edwards’s career, it more broadly ended up helping local Republicans.)

The most obvious advantage to a nonpartisan blanket primary would be to free candidates from kowtowing to the craziest elements of their bases. All candidates would be appealing to all voters, diluting the influence of the wingers—or at least any one set of wingers.

This system would also reduce the kind of tactical voting where voters are loath to support less-established candidates for fear of “wasting” their ballots. (The best send-up of this remains the Simpsons’s “Treehouse of Horror VII,” where aliens Kang and Kodos pose as Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential race; when the plot is exposed and voters threaten to support a third-party candidate, Kang taunts them, “Go ahead, throw your vote away!”) In jungle primaries, by contrast, voters could go with their top choice in the first round, secure in the knowledge that, if their candidate didn’t make the cut, they’d have another chance to influence the final outcome.

Jungle primaries do lend themselves to other types of strategic voting. For instance, a block of Democratic voters could band together to try to boost a weak Republican candidate into the final round. (This, however, is a tricky business that could wind up throwing the race to the “wrong” candidate.) They also increase the odds that a voting district dominated by one party could wind up electing a candidate from the opposing party, depending on how much vote-splitting occurred. (Say, if five Democrats ran and only two Republicans—or one Republican and one third-party candidate—fragmenting the Democratic vote to the degree that none of the party’s candidates wound up in the final round.)

It’s hardly surprising that the parties haven’t exactly rushed to embrace nonpartisan primaries, which, after all, would greatly reduce their power. The Democratic Party actually sued to disband a similar blanket system briefly attempted in California, taking the case (successfully) all the way to the Supreme Court. Plenty of states, including Texas, use jungle primaries in either special elections or low-level races, but getting them in place for high-stakes races remains a tough haul. The Louisiana system is no longer used even in its namesake’s federal elections. Grappling with constitutional questions, in 2006, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco signed a law returning the state's congressional elections to the regular primary system, effective 2008. In March 2008, however, Washington state’s nonpartisan blanket primary was deemed constitutional by the high court, providing an opening for other states interested in following suit.

Here’s hoping at least a few more states give it a test drive. Every system has its downsides, and certainly nonpartisan primaries are no guarantee against nutters. (In Louisiana’s 1991 governor’s race, David Duke, running as a Republican, placed second in the initial vote—knocking out then-Governor Buddy Roemer—before ultimately falling to Edwin Edwards, who was staging his comeback bid.) But most of the objections I’ve seen to the jungle primaries haven’t been particularly compelling. Many are premised on the need to keep parties strong as a way to prevent the electoral process from degenerating into chaos. Looking around, however, it’s not clear that the parties are getting the job done. More and more, it feels like the time has come to try a different kind of chaos.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.  

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