Connecticut Republicans, busy looking for ways to attract presidential campaigns to our easily-neglected state, have changed the format of the April 2012 presidential preference primary from winner-take-all to a kind of confusing mashup of the previous system and proportional assignment of delegates. This isn’t likely to cause Mitt Romney to come bother you at home, since the honor of picking presidential candidates is usually reserved for irritable rural voters, but it might make the already Byzantine selection process a little more fair. Maybe.
Of course, if Connecticut’s political parties were actually interested in fairness, which they aren’t, they might consider doing the unthinkable and backing legislation to throw primaries at all levels open to everyone. Plenty of states do just that, even at the theoretically all-important presidential level, so why not? There are a lot of good reasons to do so, including the moderating effect of larger, more diverse voting pools participating in primaries and allowing more people to have a real say in districts where one party usually rules.
The arguments against open primaries usually come from committed partisans, and they always go a little something like this: party members should be free to choose their own candidates, open primaries water down the ideological intent of the party faithful and independents get their say in the general election anyway. The basic thrust behind a lot of these arguments is that the system is in place and working fine just the way it is. Unfortunately this is anything but true, as the paralysis affecting the nation’s capital illustrates.
We’re all aware of the problem. Republicans are doing everything they can to sabotage President Obama and the Democrats, and they’re making unprecedented use of procedural blocking tactics, breathtaking political brinksmanship and increasingly wild rhetoric to do so. The country suffers as a result, because as David Frum points out, Republicans have adopted the mindset and no-holds-barred tactics of a Westminster-system parliamentary party in an American system that was designed for compromise and collegiality. Now that Republicans have broken the seal, there’s no reason why traumatized and angry Democrats shouldn’t retaliate by using the exact same tactics on the next Republican administration, whenever it may arrive. In fact, one only has to look at the later Bush years to see the stirrings of just this sort of Democratic intransigence.
What does this have to do with primaries? Hyper-partisan closed primaries coupled with rotten redistricting practices are just one of the many causes of this creeping partisan rot. Safe districts created for a single party to dominate lead to the election being decided in the party primary, where it’s very easy for a committed and enthusiastic ideological minority to win. The primary and redistricting systems, especially when both are dominated by party members as they are in Connecticut, can result in election results that are good for parties and specific groups but bad for the kind of government that’s described in the Constitution.
We can do better, and we should. Primaries haven’t always been around, even in this country. Their origins lie with the original progressive movement that existed in the early part of the 20th century, and we’ve been tinkering with them ever since. Parties didn’t even fully replace the old convention system for choosing presidential candidates until the 1970s, and they’ve evolving even now. There is no reason why we can’t change them to something more open and democratic and less rabidly partisan. Redistricting practices, too, can be improved. The poster boy for redistricting reform is Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, who is still on the bipartisan redistricting committee even though he’s actively running for Congress in the soon-to-be redrawn 5th district. Sure, he’s not technically doing anything wrong by being there along with other legislators, but maybe none of them should be there at all. Every single person appointed to the redistricting committee has some sort of stake in the outcome.
A kind of solution for Connecticut and other states might lie in what California, which was one of the least governable states in the country thanks in part to creative, partisan redistricting and a flavor of closed primary. Now redistricting is done by a special nonpartisan panel, and the next primaries will weed out all but the top two candidates—regardless of party. In essence, California is enshrining in its laws and opening up what American primaries have already become: the first of two distinct rounds of elections.
California’s system likely isn’t perfect, and won’t be a fix for every problem the state’s politics have. But by design it’s intended to elect candidates who are far less ideologically driven, and far more likely to seek compromise. If we truly value our system of government, perhaps parties in Connecticut and elsewhere should look closely at what California is doing, and devise reforms of their own. We might not attract presidential candidates, but we might take a step towards making our democracy more sound.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.