Our national political culture has devolved into a polarized partisan mess. We often complain about our politicians, but we’re doing precious little to change how we elect them. While no process can make up for poor candidates, considering a move to jungle primaries could lessen the partisan stranglehold on our politics.
A jungle primary is an election in which all candidates for an elected office face off in the same primary without regard to political party.
Conventional political wisdom suggests that candidates for office run to their base to win primaries and then moderate their campaigns to succeed in general elections. That’s a perfectly sound strategy in states and districts where both parties have relatively equal political clout.
Unfortunately a growing number of states and districts function more like political monopolies. According to Ballotpedia, “only 22 of the 435 [U.S. House of Representatives] races (5.1 percent) will be truly competitive” in the upcoming 2018 general election. In the majority of races, the primary election is the election, and the general election is a formality.
But we have other options.
California, for example, has a jungle primary that many states would be wise to consider. Rather than guaranteeing a spot on the general election ballot for any particular party, the primary election determines the top two candidates who run in the general election. In California, that often means two Democrats competing against each other in the general.
Republicans might think that’s unfair, but a jungle primary actually gives them more of an opportunity to influence the politician who ultimately wins the election.
Contrast that model with a conventional election in a similarly polarized state like Alabama. Democrats simply don’t win statewide in Alabama anymore and aren’t competitive in the majority of legislative races. The Republican primary usually determines the winner, and Democrats go to the general election polls in what amounts to symbolic opposition.
In a jungle primary system, every vote counts. Whether it’s two Democrats in California or two Republicans in Alabama, voters have a voice in the general election even if their only ballot options aren’t aligned with their preferred political party.
Louisiana takes the concept a step further by doing away with the traditional primary altogether for congressional and state elections. All candidates appear on a single general election ballot. If a candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins outright. If not, then the top two vote-getters face each other in a runoff regardless of their party affiliation.
No system is perfect. Jungle primaries naturally favor parties running fewer candidates. For example, multiple candidates of one party might win the majority of votes in the primary but fail to advance a candidate to the runoff because majority candidates split the vote. It’s a risk worth taking if the overall goal is to reduce the rancor of partisan politics.
We need more candidates willing to view the world in terms of problems and solutions, rather than preordained partisan conclusions and recycled talking points. That’s a tall order that no electoral process will change, but we need to start somewhere. Heading down a path with the chance to reduce the emphasis on partisan politics is definitely worth our thoughtful consideration.
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