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The Few Who Decide Who Governs America

These days, most elections are won or lost long before Election Day in primaries in which tiny numbers of people vote. It's plunging our political system further into dysfunction.

On March 5, the 2014 election season officially opened, when Texas held the year's first party primary election. For all intents and purposes, that season ends on Sept. 9, when Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island hold the last party primaries of 2014. Sure, a handful of high-profile U.S. Senate races will provide a thin veneer of election-night drama for political junkies. But for about 90 percent of the nation's thousands of political races, the key question -- "Who will govern us? -- will have been answered long before Nov 4.

And by whom? In Texas, a not-so whopping 13.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary. Illinois' March 18 primary attracted just 17 percent of registered voters. Such micro-turnouts are now the rule. Earlier this spring, I collected official voter-registration and turnout statistics for all state party primary elections held during the 2011-12 election cycle. The aggregate turnout? Less than 20 percent of registered voters -- and this included presidential primary contests.

Factor in citizens who aren't registered to vote, and about 16 percent of eligible voters now participate in our primary elections. Since most party nominees need only a plurality of the votes cast, congressional and state legislative candidates often need only about 5 percent of eligible citizens' primary votes to guarantee electoral victory.

Can we mostly blame that nefarious villain, the "gerrymander," by which those in power, whether Republicans or Democrats, shamelessly contort political boundaries to give their partisans an electoral edge? I wish -- because then the creation of nonpartisan, independent redistricting commissions (which I support) could make a big difference.

Unfortunately, that would ignore an inconvenient demographic truth, which I learned as Oregon' secretary of state in re-drawing our state legislative lines in 1991. As detailed in Bill Bishop's excellent 2004 book, The Big Sort, a generation or two ago Americans of diverse political views could be found in significant quantities in most communities, guaranteeing a certain modicum of electoral competitiveness in the November elections. But in the last 50 years Republicans and Democrats alike have increasingly self-sorted themselves across the geographical landscape. Most rural areas and small-town districts are now dominated by Republicans. Larger urban areas are even more heavily Democratic. Even many suburbs now are lopsided in one direction or the other.

The result is that just 10-15 percent of the nation's 7,383 state legislative seats are still competitive between the two parties. For U.S. House seats, the New York Times' Nate Silver in 2012 pegged the number at 8 percent, or just 35 seats out of 435. Today, it would require even more unnatural salamander-like contortions of the electoral map than we have now to ensure electoral competitiveness.

Political insiders know this truth all so well: Win the party primary and you usually win the election. U.S. House seats today can often be had for 10,000 to 20,000 votes. Many state legislative seats require getting just 500 or 1,000 supporters to the polls on primary day. That's barely breaking an electoral sweat.

What really matters about elections -- how well we govern ourselves -- is affected in two major ways. One is well known; the other is far too little discussed.

"Getting primaried" has now become a common verb in our political lexicon. Elected officials who espouse moderation, or have demonstrated their ability to reach compromises with opponents, increasingly find themselves in a World War I-like "no man's land," subject to as much political fire coming from the trenches behind them as from in front of them.

It's not just moderate Republicans who quake in their boots (and/or change long-held views) in fear of tea-party ambush. Many Democrats, especially at the state and local levels, keenly understand how their electoral success is imperiled by displaying insufficient fealty to certain key interest groups, such as public-employee unions.

The result is political dysfunction on both ends of the spectrum. While Republican state legislators get wound around the axle of no-new-taxes pledges, their Democratic counterparts duck such tough issues as education accountability and public-pension reform.

Much less acknowledged is how primary elections also heavily skew our electoral conversations -- what we talk about and what we don't -- based on age.

Oregon's May 2012 primary voter turnout, at 45 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans, was one of the highest in the nation. According to data compiled by Secretary of State Kate Brown's office, the median age of those casting ballots was 61. Senior citizens were seven times more likely to cast a ballot in that contest than were citizens under 30.

Is it any wonder that state and federal legislators alike defend a wide array of age-based tax breaks and other benefits, regardless of seniors' incomes or financial assets? Meanwhile, both Red and Blue state legislators continue to turn a largely blind eye to such important needs as investing to repair our rapidly decaying infrastructure.

What's to be done? Efforts to boost primary turnouts could help, through reforms such as "universal ballot delivery." An even bolder move: Abolish the primary as a partisan exercise, as California and Washington state have done. In those states, every registered voter (regardless of party or lack thereof) receives the same ballot. All candidates are listed; voters can vote for whomever they prefer (again, regardless of party), and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

Neither reform is a panacea. Long-established patterns of non-voting aren't easy to disrupt, and there are other root causes, not the least of which is how increasingly distasteful and irrelevant politics seems to voters, especially those under 40. However, both changes would at least provide more plausible paths for potential electoral success to candidates who are more interested in solutions and the actual business of governing rather than games of political "gotcha."

Unfortunately, neither reform is likely to happen on a broad scale anytime soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the pseudo-drama of this November's election night. Just don't pretend it's the Big Show that it used to be.

A Senior Fellow the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government
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