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An Antidote for Our Ultra-Polarized Politics

Primary elections are where most of those who govern us are chosen. Can making them nonpartisan — or eliminating them altogether — diminish the impact of ideological fringes? What has happened in Louisiana suggests that it can.

A Louisiana vother
A local resident cast her ballot in a 2018 congressional race in Bossier Parish, La. Louisiana did away with the party primary system in the 1970s. (Shutterstock)
Congress and state legislatures across the country are more politically polarized today than at any point in modern American history. And here’s the kicker: This ideological extremity of our elected officials, and their unwillingness to work together, is not representative of the general public. Poll after poll shows that most Americans believe they have much in common and want lawmakers to work more closely together.

To make government more reflective of the people it represents, many reformers are focusing on tweaks to the electoral system. Our system, the thinking goes, caters to the ideological fringes of the two major parties instead of the whole electorate, because primary elections — not general elections — ultimately determine most of our major governing bodies. More than four in five U.S. House seats, for example, are “safe” for Republicans or Democrats, meaning that four-fifths of congressional representatives answer only to Republican or Democratic primary voters, not to the full electorate.

A viable solution that is gaining traction across the country is replacing partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries, in which all candidates (Democratic, Republican, independent and third party) compete directly against each other and all eligible voters can participate. Three states — Alaska, California and Washington — have done this in one form or another for all state and federal elections. And Nevada voters could make their state the fourth nonpartisan-primary state through an initiative on the ballot next year.

How can we tell if these reforms are working? The increasing rate of their expansion hasn’t left the public — including researchers such as myself or the average voter — with much information to judge. That is, with one exception: Louisiana, which did away with the party primary system altogether back in the 1970s. My research about the state in the wake of this change, the first study of its kind, shows that Louisiana has reduced polarization, improved governance and even bettered resident health.

According to a widely used and respected measure of state legislatures’ polarization by political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty, Louisiana was the second-least-polarized state (after Rhode Island) from the mid-1990s (when data was first available) to 2018. One of the most significant, real-world examples of this was the gubernatorial race in 2015 and its aftermath. During the 2010s, Democrats in the states most similar to Louisiana — Alabama and Mississippi — nominated considerably progressive candidates in their partisan primaries, even though progressive candidates stood no chance in a general election. By contrast, in 2015, an anti-abortion, pro-gun rights Democrat, John Bel Edwards, performed well enough in Louisiana’s nonpartisan election to force a runoff, which he won in a close race that a more left-leaning Democrat almost certainly would have lost.

Once in office, Edwards joined with moderate Republicans to make Louisiana the first Deep South state to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. The state has gone on to have fewer uninsured residents and better health outcomes than its Deep South neighbors, despite a higher poverty rate and the lingering toll of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Separate research from political scientists Frederick Boehmke and Paul Skinner has found that Louisiana’s legislature was the fourth most innovative in the nation from 2001 to 2010 (the most recent decade for which they calculated their scores). For example, in response to the problem of chronically low student performance, Louisiana became (and still is) a national leader in charter schools.

Louisiana differs from the three aforementioned nonpartisan-primary states in that it holds only a general election, featuring all candidates and eligible voters, and requires a majority winner to avoid a top-two runoff. But this so-called “jungle primary” — “majority-vote system” is a preferable description — is similar enough that it could foreshadow trends in other states. Indeed, such trends are already emerging in Alaska, which implemented nonpartisan primaries just last year, as well as in Washington state and California, which implemented their nonpartisan primaries in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

California and Washington, for example, have polarized less than other states in the West, despite the region being the nation’s fastest-polarizing. Nonpartisan primaries also appear to dampen polarization in Congress, based on data from these states. Research by Christian Grose, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, found that newly elected members of Congress from states without a partisan primary (Louisiana, California and Washington) were 18 percent less polarized than their peers.

Further evidence suggests that the absence of a partisan primary increases the likelihood that lawmakers can exercise their conscience and cast tough votes, the very point of a representative democracy. Out of the 40 GOP U.S. senators who were planning to run in a future partisan primary, only two of them, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and Utah’s Mitt Romney, voted to convict former President Trump in his second impeachment trial. Out of the four GOP senators who hailed from states without partisan primaries, by contrast, two of them voted to convict Trump: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and — yes — a Louisianan, Bill Cassidy.

All the preceding invites the question: If Louisiana’s election system can produce such measurable benefits in a state that has experienced so much poverty and adversity in recent decades, what can an improved electoral system without partisan primaries accomplish in other states?

Richard Barton is a Democracy Fellow at Unite America and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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