Sen. Schumer humbly lays out a plan for replacing partisan primaries, saving America

Proposal aims to improve centrists' election odds

WASHINGTON, D.C. - New York Senator Charles Schumer has written an op-ed piece for The New York Times with a characteristically humble headline, “End Partisan Primaries, Save America.”

Schumer’s proposal is to replace the current system of purely partisan primary elections with open primaries where the two top vote-getters (this is often called the TTVG system) regardless of party move on to the general election.  The idea is that this will lessen the clout of extremists in both parties, improve the odds that centrists get elected and thus reduce political polarization. 

Schumer writes:

“From 10,000 feet, the structure of our electorate looks to be healthy, with perhaps a third of the potential voters who are left-leaning Democrats, a third who are right-leaning Republicans and a third who are independents in the middle.

“But primaries poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance, because the vast majority of Americans don’t typically vote in primaries. Instead, it is the ‘third of the third’ most to the right or most to the left who come out to vote — the 10 percent at each of the two extremes of the political spectrum. Making things worse, in most states, laws prohibit independents — who are not registered with either party and who make up a growing proportion of the electorate — from voting in primaries at all.”

California moved to a TTVG system in 2010 precisely for these reasons. Washington and Louisiana have similar systems. Schumer wants all states to join the party.

States are independent creatures, of course, and there’s no magic wand to wave over them. But there is precedent. As Schumer points out, the widespread use of primary elections is itself a recent reform:

“Primary election rules are not immutably ingrained in our politics. Before the McGovern-Fraser Commission — formed after the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which was marred by conflict over the Vietnam War — primaries were not even a major component of electoral politics in most states. Both parties adopted many of the commission’s recommendations, which were intended to weaken the power of party bosses. But today, with the decline of party-machine power, the polarization that divides the parties seems a far greater threat than establishment ‘bosses.’”

Would it work? There isn’t much evidence either way. The skeptical FiveThirtyEight has reviewed some academic work that seems to show that the TTVG system in California hasn’t had much effect yet. But there isn’t a lot of history to work from.

What I think (or is it hope?) is significant here is that a high profile, very partisan, very press-conscious senator like Schumer is thinking about systematic reform.

For a long time, reformers focused on campaign finance reform.  That was a remedy for corruption and the decline of confidence in government, not for polarization and the decline of legislative competence.

Schumer’s plan may or may not catch on, but it probably won’t. If it did, it would be an experiment, not a panacea. 

It would be interesting and useful if Schumer’s proposal is more than just a throwaway column and actually reflects a conversation powerful pols are having. 

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