Old news we should read again

by Bob Richard // Published January 21, 2008
Partisan polarization, resulting in underrepresentation of centrist views, seems like old news to me. So does declining support for the two major parties. When I first saw the headlines linked below, I wanted to say, "ho-hum". I'm glad I didn't.

Last week the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released California's Post-Partisan Future, an analysis of statewide voter registration and survey results. It concludes: "If current registration trends continue, we expect that there will be more independents than either Republicans or Democratic voters by 2025".

It's always risky to project current trends too far into the future. And it's possible that younger voters are disproportionately likely to register as independents, then switch to one of the parties as they get older. (Maybe somebody who knows the historical data can help me out here.) But it seems fairly clear that polarization is accompanied by a weakening of the hold of the two major parties on the electorate as a whole.

The report goes on to say that "majorities of Californians say the two parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third party is needed." Not just Californians, though. For decades, this has been the finding of pretty much every national poll that asks the question.

Commenting on the PPIC report in this column, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has this to say:

The shrinkage of the two major parties is, unto itself, both logical and, perhaps, healthy. It's simply inconceivable that the incredible cultural, economic and even geographic diversity of 38 million Californians could be stuffed into two parties.
I couldn't agree more or have said it any better. Walters concludes:
Until and unless one of the parties moves toward the middle and begins attracting the disaffected voters now opting for independent status, and/or structural changes are made in the electoral system, such as redistricting reform and more open primaries, or third parties take hold, this syndrome is likely to continue and Californians will, therefore, continue to see divided and gridlocked government.
Aside from brief mentions of redistricting reform and open primaries, Walters doesn't really go into the institutional changes that could move the two dominant parties toward the middle or allow third parties to take hold.

PPIC, on the other hand, offers these

six proposals to involve more independent voters and increase the numbers of moderate voices involved in choosing elected representatives:

(1) State-level primaries could permit voters to vote for candidates regardless of the voter"s and the candidate"s party. Then, the two top vote-getters could have a runoff in the general election.

(2) State-level primaries could be eliminated and replaced with instant runoffs in general elections. In such a system, candidate victories are decided by general election voters selecting both their first and second choices.

(3) General elections could use a proportional representation formula. As a result, the numbers of Democratic, Republican, independent, and third-party seats in the legislature would be based on the percentage of the vote each receives, rather than winner-take-all in local districts.

(4) Legislative races in general elections could be nonpartisan. In such a system, ballots would list candidates without party labels, as in mayoral, city council, and county board of supervisor races in California.

(5) Campaign finance reforms, such as public financing, could be implemented in elections. In this way, nonpartisans and moderates could become financially competitive against partisan candidates who can attract support from ideological and interest groups.

(6) Future legislative redistricting could focus on party competition rather than incumbent advantages. In line with state trends, local elections with partisan parity would be decided by centrist and independent voters.

My first choice, of course, is proportional voting (3), although instant runoff (2) would be an important step. It's encouraging to hear commentators adding proportional voting to their lists of potential solutions. It's especially encouraging in this context, since the issue on the table is not exclusion of libertarians or socialists or Greens at the ends of the political spectrum, but the exclusion of the moderate center.

The last proposal, redistricting reform, is a double-edged sword. As FairVote has shown many times, making single-member districts more competitive also makes them less representative.  Drawing district boundaries must indeed be non-partisan, but that's not a real solution to the problem of representativeness.

Suggestions (1) and (4) are variations on the same theme. They would effectively remove political parties from the process of choosing the finalists. Folks differ on whether that's a good idea, or even possible. In fact, disagreement over whether the two party system should be replaced with a multi-party system or a no party system is one (I think secondary) roadblock in the way of change.

Open primaries (California's are a mixture of closed, or open to independents but not members of other parties, at each party's option) might help move the two major parties a little closer to each other. Research comparing partisan divides in open primary and closed primary states would be helpful here. (If you know of such studies, please post a comment.) But, like redistricting reform, this is a weak solution to a very intransigent problem.

The academic blogosphere considers these matters far more frequently than the public press (see, especially, Matthew Shugart's Fruits and Votes). It's time for this discussion to escape from academia.  Thanks to PPIC and Dan Walters for helping open the door.