The Primary Project: the first step to saving America’s constitutional democracy
The Primary Project in a Nutshell
What do you think is America’s Number One political problem? It’s likely that you put partisan gridlock in Congress near the top of the list. As you know, our most serious issues are not being resolved because Congress is still – even after the election — stuck in gridlock. Whether you are happy or disappointed with the re-election of President Obama, no president can govern effectively with a Congress that can’t make decisions. So we’re all stuck. Partisan gridlock is Problem One.
We have to fix it, and we can. This message is about HOW. The idea is simple: more people – millions more people – have to vote in primary elections. Primary elections set the limits of the choices we have. They are now even more important than general elections.
But millions of concerned Americans don’t vote in primaries. Voter turnout even among party-registered voters is low, and it’s reported that as many as 40 percent of registered voters are now independents. They dropped out of the parties to express their frustrations, but that has to change. The parties used to be called “big tents.” We need them to be big tents again. That happens when millions of voters with different values and priorities vote in primaries.
Congress can only be reformed if it reforms itself. Congress makes the rules. The current members of Congress were elected under the current rules. If we want them to change the rules, we have to give them a huge incentive. This is it.
Members of Congress are elected by a two-step process.
- First, candidates run in a party primary. By choosing candidates at this stage, voters set the direction for their party. The primary narrows the field of candidates to just two for the general election. (Realistically, minor party and independent candidates have little chance of winning most general elections.)
- Second, the winners of the primary run in a general election. In the House of Representatives, they run in a district that has been redistricted to favor one party or the other.
The Republican Party is dominated by activists and special interests on the right; the Democratic Party is dominated by a coalition of special interests on the left. Members of Congress who try to work collaboratively across the aisle risk losing the next primary to a challenger who claims more loyalty to the partisan orthodoxy. The primary election is where the process breaks down. (This is also happening at other levels of government such as state legislatures, where the next generation of Congress members is in training.)
Instead of a broad diversity of viewpoints, Congress is increasingly locked into just two inflexible positions — a stalemate that could lead to a national breakdown.
And, notice, nobody is winning. Not the party you prefer, and not the other one.
The Real Meaning of Party Registration
Party registration enables you to vote in a primary. Party registration does not have to define your identity or your values. Surprised?
Millions of Americans dropped out of parties because they believed their former party no longer represented their values. They thought party membership meant endorsing values they didn’t agree with. But that’s not necessarily true. You can vote in a primary not to support current party values but to influence them, by voting for candidates closest to your own values. That’s what happens in a big tent. And you can still vote for whomever you like in the general election.
What about open primaries?
Almost half the states allow independent voters to vote in primaries. The laws vary from state to state. Check the laws and restrictions with your own state’s Secretary of State. If you register in a party, you’ll have more influence. Either way, VOTE in primary elections under the laws of your state.
What about minor parties?
Today, with a few exceptions, those who register in a minor party are not helping their cause but simply making themselves ineligible to vote in primaries. They can continue to support the values of their minor party, donate money wherever they choose, and vote for minor party candidates in the general election, while registering in a major party to help solve this crisis. Later, perhaps a more responsive Congress and state legislatures will change election laws to make it easier for minor parties to participate.
What about me? I REALLY BELIEVE in my party just the way it is.
Some people won’t like this Primary Project at all, and you might be one of them. Perhaps you believe that the other side is profoundly wrong and that defeating that other side is absolutely and urgently necessary. So this message might make you furious. I won’t try to convince you otherwise. But look at the reality: you’re not winning. Neither is the other side. We are all stuck in a stalemate until the balance is changed.
We can solve the gridlock problem by changing our voting habits to pick candidates who represent a more diverse range of viewpoints. We just have to vote in primaries, where the initial selections are made. It’s easy, it takes very little time, and it’s free. But it needs millions of people.
Here’s what has to happen.
- Millions of independent voters must register to vote in one of the two major parties – either one. This should be done sooner rather than later so the current members of Congress know it’s happening. (This step is preferable but not necessary in states that have open primaries.)
- Then they, and all the party-registered voters who have been staying home, must vote in the next primary election – for Congress and for state and local offices, voting according to their personal priorities and beliefs. If their state has a caucus process instead, they have to show up and vote in the caucus. That takes a little more time.
- By voting in primaries based on their own criteria, they will support diverse viewpoints and can move the parties toward civility, reasonableness and new collaborative solutions that combine the best ideas of right and left.
- If they feel so inclined, voters can write letters and e-mails to their senators and representatives, telling them, “I’m a voter in your party and here’s my opinion…” but that is not mandatory.
Nothing more is required. No party loyalty, no campaign donations, nothing! That’s all there is to it.
Once the balance is changed in the primary elections, what could happen is:
- Incumbents in Congress can vote for reasonable compromises without fear that they will be tossed out in the next primary.
- In the near future, perhaps a different breed of political leader will step forward and be willing to run for office. By 2016, maybe a new class of leaders could even run for President.
- The spirit of problem-solving rather than partisan stalemate will trickle down to state and local governments, with differing perspectives enriching rather than obstructing public policy.
This can change Congress in one election cycle. Some members of Congress would prefer to work together, but the current system doesn’t let them because they fear being kicked out by party base voters in the next primary. But if they know they have a base of supporters in that primary, those members will be empowered to start working together.
This could also counter some of the toxic effects of the money that is now so damaging to the election process. Money buys advertising – but advertising is only effective if the advertisers know what the audience will respond to. If primary voters become more diverse, oversimplified negative advertising that distorts complex issues won’t work.
In this future, Congress can tackle the deeper issues needed to ensure a stable and functioning government with a responsible budget. We, and they, can argue about what those reforms should be once the institution can tolerate respectful argument based on the merit of ideas. America can start solving its problems again.