It is a rare day when I find myself in agreement with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. After all, he is a prime mover behind the attempt, by constitutional amendment, to gut the First Amendment when it comes to political speech. The text is quite lengthy, at least by constitutional amendment standards, but it could effectively be put into a single sentence, “The power of Congress to enact incumbent protection legislation shall not be limited.”
But Senator Schumer has come out in today’s New York Times in favor of open primaries. That is a very good idea. He points out that the center of American politics is nearly empty these days as the parties have become much more ideologically and much less geographically based. Combine that with gerrymandering, and it is more and more the primary elections that determine who eventually wins the seat up for grabs.
But most states have party primaries, where only registered party members can vote. With parties more ideological than ever, it is the true believers, usually at the left or right extreme of each party, who turn out for these primary elections. That forces politicians to move to the left or right in order to win the primary, or avoid having to run in one at all. “Primary” has long been a noun and an adjective; it has now become a verb as well, as in “We will primary him if he doesn’t support … .”
Party primaries, of course, also disenfranchise those registered as independents, now about one-third of the American electorate.
Schumer advocates a system where there are no party primaries, only a single primary, open to all who qualify regardless of party. If one candidate wins a majority of the vote, he’s elected. If no one gets a majority, then the top two vote getters run in the general election.
Open primaries enfranchise independents (centrists almost be definition) as well as greatly reducing the influence of the political extremes. They would help to restore the power of the center in American politics, where successful public policy almost always originates. (Just consider the ObamaCare disaster, wholly a product of the left.)
This system began in Louisiana (to be sure, not a state exactly famous for its enlightened or squeaky-clean politics) in the 1970s. In 2010 it was adopted by referendum in California and, according to Senator Schumer, “The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern.” Washington State has had open primaries since 2008 and Colorado and Oregon will consider them this year.
It would seem that the idea is spreading, as good ideas always do. For the sake of American politics I hope it spreads far and fast.