The latest game of political chicken that drove Washington to a government shutdown and the very edge of the debt ceiling gave new life to the omnipresent complaint of elder statesmen and centrists: If only Congressional districts weren’t so gerrymandered in the decennial redistricting process, moderation and across-the-aisle deal-making wouldn’t be so rare.

But there’s another solution to the partisan extremism that seems to dominate Congress today, one that’s already in practice in two states: A top-two primary system, one that incentivizes candidates in even the most conservative or liberal districts to appeal to the vast middle that otherwise plays a limited role in picking members of Congress.

In California and Washington state, that system is already in effect. And in both states, the hard right and the hard left have seen their influence wane.

The problem, as reformers see it: Partisan gerrymandering has led to Congressional districts in which one party is so dominant that whichever candidate it nominates will win in November. About three-quarters of all districts, according to some estimates, are so overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic that the other party doesn’t have the slightest hope.


So candidates from the dominant party have an incentive to align themselves with the partisan base that will turn out in a primary. Only hard-core partisans vote in a primary, meaning those candidates are playing to the extremes of either party – Republicans try to be the most conservative candidate in the field in deep-red districts, while Democrats try to be the most liberal candidate in sky-blue districts. The districts are drawn in such a way that there aren’t enough independents and voters of the minority party to punish extremism on either side.

The partisan bases that control those primaries are so deeply polarized, and hate the other side so much, that office holders are discouraged from working across the aisle. In modern politics, if an elected official isn’t in open warfare with the other side, he must be a squish, and partisan bases quickly replace squishes with hard-liners.

The solution involves empowering voters in the middle of the political spectrum. If elected officials are held accountable to a wider swath of the electorate, the theory goes, they’ll be less likely to position themselves on the political extremes, and more likely to want to be seen as bipartisan problem-solvers.

Here’s how California and Washington got the middle involved: Both states used to have what election officials dubbed the “blanket primary.” Instead of choosing a Democratic primary ballot or a Republican primary ballot, voters could vote for any candidate in any race, across party lines – say, a Democrat for governor, a Republican for Senate, a Libertarian for county commissioner, a Green Party candidate for city council. The top vote-getter in each party would advance to the general election.


The two major parties hated the blanket primary. Party officials wanted more control over the primaries that chose their nominees; why, they argued, should a voter not affiliated with the Democratic Party get to choose the Democratic nominee for governor? Why should a Green Party member or a Libertarian have just as much say in choosing the Republican nominee for Senate as a Republican voter?

Above all, why shouldn’t the party be allowed to decide which candidates it wants to affiliate with?

After California voters instituted the blanket primary in 1996, the parties filed a lawsuit. The case, California Democratic Party v. Jones, made its way to the Supreme Court in 2000, where Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 7-2 majority opinion that the blanket primary violated the political parties’ First Amendment rights of association.

The Ninth Circuit court cited the Supreme Court’s decision in striking down Washington’s blanket primary.

Good-government groups in both states spent years trying to find ways around the Supreme Court’s decision, in hopes of reopening the primaries. In California, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, led the charge; in Washington, it was the Washington State Grange, an organization of farmers that had sponsored the original initiative that created the blanket primary in the 1930s.

The key, they decided, was to officially disregard party affiliations altogether. Candidates could express a party preference on the ballot, without declaring themselves to be a member of one party or another. Instead of advancing the top vote-earners by party – one Republican, one Democrat, one Libertarian, etc. – only the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election.

Washington State voters approved a top-two primary system by a 20-point margin in 2004. The Supreme Court ruled in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party that the system was constitutional because candidates weren’t actually declaring their own party affiliation. California passed its own version of the top-two primary in 2010.

On the 2012 ballot in Washington, gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee’s name appeared alongside the designation “Prefers Democratic Party,” while Rob McKenna, the state’s attorney general at the time, was listed as “Prefers Republican Party.”

(Because candidates get to state their own preference, minor parties don’t have to worry about qualifying for the ballot.)

The incentive to spark partisan warfare, and the disincentive to work with members of the other party, dissolves along with the incentive to appeal strictly to the party base. When members of Congress have to appeal to moderates and voters in the other party not once, but twice, they begin to value their bipartisan credentials even more.

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