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In a time of national division, polarizing primaries are part of the problem

A roll of stickers reading "I voted today" sit on a table at a polling location in Summerville, S.C., during midterm primary elections on June 14, 2022.
Sean Rayford
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A roll of stickers reading "I voted today" sit on a table at a polling location in Summerville, S.C., during midterm primary elections on June 14, 2022.

The congressional hearings into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol are revealing how former President Donald Trump strove to stay in office by any means necessary.

They are also revealing the depth of division within our country.

A poll by Morning Consult this week found 84% of Democrats approving of the committee's mission but just 20% of Republicans.

It would be a mistake to say the country has never been this divided. This weekend we mark Juneteenth Day, a reminder that we had a civil war over the single greatest inequality in our history. But it is nonetheless disturbing to realize how a century and a half later we have again reached a moment when the words "civil war" are used in reference to the present.

It is said the best medicine for what ails democracy is more democracy. But what does more democracy mean? If it just means more of the kind of politics we have now then it hardly offers a remedy.

Our current system produces a Congress and many state legislatures that have abysmal ratings from the voters and yet record high reelection rates for their individual members.

We need new mechanisms to reform, if not replace, the kinds of democratic processes we have. And efforts to find better processes are underway around the country, starting with the party primary system, which is a big reason the extremes tend to pull the parties further apart.

Primary voting is almost by definition dominated by activists, who tend to be more ideological. More moderate candidates who might represent the majority of citizens in a state or a district are at a disadvantage.

The primary problem

We have had primary elections to select nominees for general elections at the local, state and federal level for more than a century. They began as an alternative to having party bosses at each level simply name the candidates they wanted.

As the system has evolved, however, primaries have come to be dominated by ideological partisans who please the more agenda-driven elements in either party who are the most likely to participate in primaries.

There is comparatively little incentive to reach out to voters who might fall somewhere between the two parties. And that is especially true as computer-assisted gerrymandering creates more districts that are "safe" for one party or the other in November elections.

That is increasingly problematic as fewer Americans identify with either major party. At the end of 2021, Gallup found 42% of Americans identified as independents — with 29% identifying as Democrats and 27% as Republicans. Roughly half the states that have registration by party now have more people registering as independents than as Democrats or Republicans. Gallup has also found the percentage of Americans favoring creation of a new major party has risen above 60% for the first time.

Rather than respond to this by seeking common ground, the parties have continued to move further away from each other. Stanford political scientist Adam Bonica, among others, has charted this trend across the past four decades, demonstrating how the parties' nominees for Congress have become more ideological and further apart. While the political center was inhabited by a substantial fraction of nominees in both parties in 1980, it is almost entirely deserted today.

We should not think of this as simply a puzzle for professors. The growing gap affects our national life. In 2019, a Public Religion Research Institute study published in The Atlantic found Americans were more likely to object to their children marrying someone from the other political party than to someone from a different religion or race. Research by others has found much the same.

One idea is to deemphasize party by having independent commissions draw the district lines rather than the legislators themselves. This has shown promise, although in some cases the commissions have become partisan or their work product has been rejected by elected officials who are partisans.

Another approach is to eliminate registration by party, allowing primary voters to choose nominees from the slate offered by either party. Taking this a step further, some states are allowing primary voters to choose among candidates from either major party or from another party or no party at all.

Elevating access and choice

There may also be a ray of hope for lessened partisanship in the system known as ranked choice voting. Some find the phrase itself off-putting or suspect a scheme to torpedo candidates they like. Others just find it hard to understand.

One of the cardinal rules about comedy is that jokes don't work if you have to explain the punchline. Something similar may be true of voting systems. They may not inspire greater confidence if you have to explain why they should.

But the special election for Congress in Alaska this year offers an example of how it can work. The state's longtime congressman, Don Young, died in March as he was beginning his 50th year in Congress.

Rather than holding the usual party primaries, Alaska is trying out a system its voters adopted by ballot measure in 2020. All candidates for Young's seat appeared on one ballot this month (June 11) regardless of party affiliation. That made for a lot of reading, as no less than 48 Alaskans qualified for that ballot.

How it works

Under the new system, the top four finishers in the June round of voting advance to a runoff on Aug. 16. And when they appear on that ballot the voters will not be asked just to choose one but to rank all four.

Best known of the four is the state's former governor, Sarah Palin, who was also the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 2008. She resigned as governor in 2009 and has since been primarily a media figure on Fox News and elsewhere.

Palin, who was endorsed by Trump, topped the results in the June round with about 28%. Second at 19% was another Republican with name recognition, Nick Begich III, and two others made the cut with smaller shares.

Under the traditional primary system, Palin's plurality would have put her in Congress. Or in a runoff with Begich.

Instead, Alaska's ranked-choice runoff will give the voters a wider choice and a chance to effect an outcome closer to a general consensus.

Palin may be the first choice of more August voters than anyone, but as a controversial figure throughout her career she may also be the third or fourth choice for many. In the end, a better mix of first-choice and second-choice scores could elevate Begich or possibly one of the other two.

Palin's showing in such a large field was impressive, in one sense. But more than 70% of those voters preferred someone else. By giving voters another chance to consider a winnowed field, the new system not only ensures a greater consensus but lets the voters themselves create that consensus.

Spokespersons for both the two major parties in Alaska told Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media they did not consider this a good test of the new system as the circumstances are so unusual. And Palin's presence alone makes this an outlier.

But it is also understandable that party officials would have doubts about a system that lessens the importance of party. Candidates who have to face primary voters from outside their own party will campaign differently from those facing only their own partisans. Their need for top-choice rankings would compete with the need to minimize their last-choice rankings.

Whether or not something of this kind could ever work for November elections on a national level, it is not hard to see it making a difference state by state and in elections at the local level — including Eric Adams' mayoral victory in New York City last year.

Whether or not ranked choice discourages negative campaigning, as some have claimed, it certainly changes the incentives for emphasizing one's party or ideological credentials. It should encourage candidates of all kinds to move away from their base of support to compete for voters between the bases.

It may be too much of a change or too much of a challenge. But it is surely no more radical than the original idea of democracy itself — or the expansions of access to voting that created the body politic as we know it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.