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Open primaries could move us to the middle

Guest Commentary


I frequently decompress by laying back in my overstuffed recliner as I read the paper. I was doing fine until a sentence in a nationally syndicated column caught my eye and raised my blood pressure.

This well known columnist said he didn’t want to understand the conservatives, he simply wanted to defeat them. Wow! So much for finding the middle ground. This ultra-adversarial attitude is becoming more and more common.

At my family reunion a few months ago, one of my relatives proclaimed she hated those damned Republicans. “I don’t trust anything they do.” So much for finding the middle ground.

I remember when national policy was formed out of compromise. Not any more. Our policy makers occupy both extremes of the political spectrum with no middle ground. They spend way too much time and effort attacking the opposition with little or no consideration for the good of the country.

Our two parties operate so far to the right and left that our country is hopelessly divided, and the middle is ignored. The problem is obvious, but what can we do about it?

A third party would force compromise, but is virtually impossible to organize and sustain. We have had some independent candidates, but nothing that resembles a national organization.

I was about to give up all hope when I read an obscure article about the blanket primary system in California. The article went into great detail about how the system worked and how both the Republicans and Democrats were trying to game the upcoming congressional elections.

The article explained that all candidates are listed on a single primary ballot. Voters have a single vote, but can select anyone they want. The two candidates with the most votes make it through to the final ballot in November. Thus, it is possible for two candidates of the same party to square off against each other in the general election.

The article didn’t say that Washington state has had the identical system since 2004. It would seem that we are too far from the center of power to be noticed.

Many Washington voters haven’t noticed either. Most of those I asked are blissfully unaware. It seems to be working for us, however. We have had very few instances where the top two are both from the same party.

California has far more congressional districts than we do, so they have had more cases of two candidates from the same party on the general election ballot. So far, there has been no widespread protest, but it is too early to tell how much the national scene would change if more states adopted the plan.

The more I learn about the top-two primary system, the better I like it. It would take a constitutional amendment to extend it to the presidential election, but nothing stops it from spreading from state to state for all other offices.

The political parties hate it for the same reason I like it. A blanket primary takes away some of their power. The parties have mounted legal challenges, but the wording has been refined enough to survive the courts.

Governments are supposed to exercise wisdom in the management of public funds, and a single primary is less costly than the old system. Voters should have the choice between the most qualified candidates. The biggest benefit, however, is that the far right and left may eventually have to soften their positions. If the top two candidates are both extremists, the ultimate winner would be the one who is most acceptable to the middle.

I like it. Given enough time, it could even lead to a third, moderate party. I sincerely hope other states follow Washington and California.

When you mail in your ballots for the primary election this August, you may be contributing to the moderation of America. I certainly hope so.

Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and long-time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free-lance columnist for over 19 years.


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