Would a national primary day help tamp down polarization?

Two recent reports say it's the way to go

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When it comes to politics, the problems plaguing America usually get far more attention than possible solutions. But two think tanks and a group of bipartisan politicians have come up separately with what they say is a cure -- at least partially -- for the polarized politics afflicting the country.

The remedy? A national primary day.

Thank the rise of the Tea Party or the constant flow of opinionated news, but you don’t have to look far to find signs that the country is divided and politicians are gripped by gridlock.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow of governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, suggests that part of the answer to reversing polarization is getting more people to vote. And that, she says, starts by establishing a single primary voting day.

As it is, turnout for elections is depressingly low. Less than 50 percent of the population votes in presidential races. It’s even lower for congressional elections and downright pitiful for primaries.

Just look at the pyramid below.

 

 

Courtesy: Brookings Institution

 

In a report released Monday, Kamarck wrote that those few who do vote in primaries tend to be extremists -- and assert a strong influence on candidates.

“Because primary elections are (mostly) restricted to voters from one party and (usually) garner low turnout, ideologues in both parties can easily dominate those elections,” she wrote. “Thus candidates, incumbents and non-incumbents alike, move away from the center and are driven to support more extreme policy and political positions.” 

According to her, a unified voting day for primaries—rather than the current system that spans six months—will increase awareness and maybe -- just maybe -- get more people to turn out. And more turn-out could mean less polarization.

Her logic flows like this: A national primary day will streamline the process for all potential voters. More people will be aware of voting. Therefore more people will vote. And the more people who vote, the more points of view candidates will have to appeal to, and that ultimately will chip away at extremism from both sides.

A separate report released in late June by a group including three former senators and a former governor in conjunction with the think tank Bipartisan Policy Center  also touted the benefit of a national primary day.

The comprehensive plan partly drafted by former Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, Tom Daschle, a Democrat, and Trent Lott, also a Republican, offered multiple “ambitious” goals. One was to develop an open primary system so that all people, regardless of their party affiliation, can vote in all primaries. That idea was tossed around quite a bit last week following New York Senator Charles Schumer’s New York Times Op-ed.

And, just like Kamarck, the group argued for a national primary voting day, largely because the current schedule is so confusing.

Just look at the 2014 primary calendar below to see the spread-out of dates.

Courtesy: Brookings Institution

“While American voters are now conditioned to vote on a common Election Day across all of the states, primary elections are held at different times of the year,” said the report. “As the process works now, many casual voters are unaware of the timing of primary elections and thus do not participate.”

Because moderate voters are less likely to care and attend a primary, candidates are left to appeal towards the extremist voters who do vote, the report said.

According to the study, that’s the root of the problem.

“The parties must engage with more than just a faction within their coalition and should see primaries as a way of attracting the general public to their party’s message and candidates,” said the report.

Both studies cited additional issues regarding polarization.

Kamarck partly blamed the media for perpetuating the message that primaries are uneventful, which she said affected people’s interest in participating.

The BPC study offered suggestions that spanned three key areas: elections, Congress and the public’s actions. Proposals included redistricting states to encourage political competition, getting members of Congress to commit to three full weeks in Washington each month, and getting Americans more involved in public service. 

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