Eric Stulberg: Protecting America's democracy

BY ERIC STULBERG

Published July 18, 2010

Since Nov. 29, 2008 I have been anxiously waiting to cast my first statewide and national vote. As the primaries for the Michigan governor and U.S. representative for the 9th district approach, I have been enthusiastically researching candidates’ positions on a wide range of issues. Like many Americans, around 31 percent according to a June Rasmussen poll, I don’t affiliate with either party and identify as an independent. And we third of Americans, the swing voters, tend to decide many significant elections, i.e. Bush v. Gore and Obama v. McCain.

But independents have little say in deciding who gets to run. In most states, including Michigan, the two major parties forbid voters to split their tickets in the primaries. This means no voter is allowed to vote for a Democrat for one position while voting for a Republican for another. Departing from the Republican ideal, we are not entitled to vote our preferences. Millions of Americans are forced to concede certain votes and prioritize which candidate or seat to support.

This is not only unfair, but it also deters many independents from voting in primaries. Instead of voting for either all Republicans or all Democrats, many independents (and many Democrats and Republicans as well) decide they would rather just not vote at all. This causes an extremely low voter turnout in the primary, which inherently elevates the hardcore bases of the parties – the most dedicated partisan troops – to decide who can and cannot run for office. Only a few percent of Americans, not the Democratic majority, determine the candidates for some of the most important public offices.

The sum result of all this is a primary system that catalyzes the election of people who represent the political fringes. As we can see today on so many issues, from health care to the economy, these ultra-partisan politicians constantly fail to reach compromises and agreements. They render our government inefficient.

But there is valid criticism to allowing primary voters to split their tickets. Some contend that allowing this in the primaries would lead to Democrats sabotaging the Republican primaries and vice versa.

There is a radical solution, though, that would permit a split ticket while at the same time making it hard to sabotage the other party. Instead of having party primaries, there should be one open primary, after which the top two vote-getters compete in a run-off for the general election. In order to run in the primary, a candidate would have to garner a certain amount of signatures, in order to prevent a ballot with hundreds of names for each seat. In theory, the most broadly popular Republicans and Democrats would garner the most votes by drawing from their bases while also balancing their views to appeal to moderates. California recently passed a proposition to enact a similar primary system with 54 percent of the vote.

A moderating force could even be seen in some of the most partisan states. For example, if two Democrats get the most votes in a Vermont primary, then one (or both) of the Democrats would have to appeal to more conservative Democrats, Republicans and independents to win the general election. A similar scenario could happen in a historically conservative state like Wyoming. Additionally, under this system, the entire public would be directly responsible for who is in office — and the decisions they enable them to make.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, the Michigan Democratic and Republican parties took controversial steps to enhance and improve voter representation. Although condemned by the national parties, Michigan moved their primaries to earlier dates so Iowa and New Hampshire alone didn’t decide who ran for president. I commend them for this bold and necessary action. Governor Granholm should be applauded for demanding in 2008 that “the voices of 5,163,271 Americans” aren’t silenced. Equally deserving of praise were the Michigan Republican leaders who ensured our state’s voice was heard in deciding the Republican nominee. It’s time again for Michigan to take the steps necessary to protect the integrity of America’s democracy, and follow the precedent set by California, by allowing the entire public to cast ballots for both Republicans and Democrats in one open primary.

Eric Stulberg can be reached at estul@umich.edu.