States Aim To Cure Hyper-Partisanship With Primary Changes

by Mara Liasson

November 18, 2013

Several states are trying to do
something about so-called hyper-partisanship by changing the
way congressional districts are
drawn and the way elections are held.

Their goal: Force members of Congress to pay attention to
general election voters more than their base voters on the right or
Fortier, the director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan
Policy Center, which is working on ways to make politics less
dysfunctional, says U.S. political parties have become more
“One thing
that that means is that Republicans are sitting in pretty safe
Republican seats and Democrats are sitting in safe Democratic
seats,” Fortier says. “So, really it is across the board. There are
not as many centrists, not as many competitive
During the
government shutdown fight we learned that conservative Republicans
in the House answered to a different political calculus than
national Republicans. They represented safe conservative districts,
which meant they were more concerned about a primary challenge from
the Tea Party than a general election fight with a
One reason
is that congressional district boundaries are drawn by politicians
to make their seats as safe as possible. It is a system where
politicians get to choose their voters instead of the other way
redistricting process occurs once every 10 years, after a new
census is taken, but several states are trying to change that. In
North Carolina, a bill to do just that is before the
“It would
take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and put it into
the hands of professional staff who would be forbidden from drawing
those districts for political purposes,” says Steve Greene, a
political scientist in North Carolina.
Population, not political affiliation, would be the only
criteria. Greene says that would be a big change for North
Carolina’s congressional district map.
“Right now, North Carolina has nine Republican seats and
four Democratic seats in a variety of really crazy shapes,” he
says. “To be honest that has got to be one of the most effective
gerrymanders in what is really essentially a 50/50
A New Way
To Primary
states already have a bipartisan or non-partisan redistricting
process. California, for instance, enacted another reform aimed at
limiting hyper-partisanship called the top-two primary. It was
passed by a voter referendum and spearheaded by Steve Peace, a
former Democratic state legislator. He is also famous for producing
the cult movie series Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which Peace
says was really about politics.
Tomatoes was, I hate to have people take it too seriously, it is
about killer tomatoes, but it also really was about government
dysfunction and about the absurd way in which we react and
overreact to crisis,” Peace says.
With the
top-two primary system, Peace set out to make California politics a
little less absurd and a little less partisan. Under the system,
just one open primary is held in each congressional district. All
of the candidates are on the ballot: Republican, Democrat, third
party. Any registered voter can participate, and the top two
candidates go on to the general election.
In extremely conservative districts, it is often two
Republicans. In very liberal districts it is two Democrats. The law
went into effect just last year so it is too early to draw
conclusions, but Peace says it is already having an effect on
elected officials.
“It’s not
about who gets elected, it’s about how they behave after they get
elected,” he says. “The truth is most politicians are far more
reasonable human beings than we appear to be in public, because we
all act like idiots trying to appeal to that narrow partisan base
that we’re dependent upon for reelection. You can see the evidence
of that in this last shutdown vote.”
Peace points out that half of California’s Republican
members in Congress broke with the Tea Party on the shutdown. In
Washington state, where non-partisan primaries have been in place
since 2008, all of the Republican members of Congress voted against
the shutdown.
Politicians Help People
Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now runs the Jesse Unruh
Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California,
says the combined effect of non-partisan redistricting and the
top-two primary is making the state’s politics less
that’s done is created a much more responsive group of legislators
and congressional members because they know that their re-election
is not solely dependent on the ideological base of their own
party,” Schnur says. “They can actually work across party lines
without having to worry about the Tea Party or Move On running a
primary challenge against them.”
still have a strong majority in California’s legislature, but their
voting records are becoming more moderate and pro business. Schnur
says there are lessons for Republicans in these
“At the
national level you’re just beginning to see the so-called
Republican establishment starting to figure out a way to push back
against the Tea Party,” he says. “These types of reforms wouldn’t
eliminate conservative Republicans any more than they’d eliminate
liberal Democrats, but what they would do is eliminate the
disincentive for Republicans to find ways to work with people on
the other side of the aisle.”
purpose of changes like the top-two primary and non-partisan
redistricting is to try to realign the political incentives for
elected officials, so that serving the public and getting
re-elected are not in conflict. [Copyright 2013
Credit: Jae C.

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