Paul Jacob

 A South Carolina Congressman shouts “You lie!” at the president and theresult is predictable: A thousand discourses on incivility and thebreakdown of civilization and honor and . . . [   fill in the dang blank yourself   ].

Yeah, I’m as worried about incivility as the next father of three. But,let’s be realistic: There are worse things than impolite politicians.There are foolish politicians, corrupt politicians, evil politicians .. . and all the policies that they can make even worse.

And speaking of policies to alter, there’s Jonathan Alter, one of our nation’s top civility mavens, with a new plan. Alter saystoday’s problem is too many “jackasses.” He tweaks the presidenthimself for using the very word to describe another incivility, laterin the news week. He thinks we should move heaven and earth toundermine the national slide into disgrace and jackassery.

How? Well, according to his assessment, if we adopted Washingtonstate’s new electoral system, which he calls the “open primary,” the“jackass quotient” among our representatives would decrease.

I’ve written about Washington state’s latest foray into electoral reform, before. Grunge-rock bassist Krist Novoselic challenged the system this summer for its assault on freedom of association. He’s a man who’s for electoral reform, but he’s particular: He wants reform done right.

As I read it, Alter wants the reform done wrong.

And this is not just an academic issue. Mr. Alter really is promoting Washington state’s new system as the one for all states. And he has reason to think it can be exported. California legislators put it on next June’s ballot. If Californians aren’t careful, they could be stuck with a goofier system than they have now.

What Alter seeks is a way to keep “extremists” out of representativepositions. He says the current system encourages them. And he has apoint. Certain kinds of partisan extremism areencouraged, or at least accommodated. We have two major parties, andthey have carved up the electoral landscape pretty well, between thetwo of them.

Washington’s new system addresses that in a clever way. Clever, because it lookslike it’s giving everyone more choices, while ensuring that, in theend, voters have less diversity to choose from, and a greaterlikelihood of voting for incumbents.

Now, Alter may want that. But incumbent protection is not high on mylist of alterations. A system that fakes voters out, that nudges themto vote again and again for the same establishment-anointed candidates,is not my idea of a good jackassery reduction plan.

First off, we must clear up something. Alter botches (or lies!) about the system. It is notan “open primary.” Well, not exactly. An open primary is whatWashington state had previously, and was ruled unconstitutional a fewyears back. For ages and ages, Washingtonians could vote for any partycandidate in the primary, regardless of the party to which the voterbelonged.

Voters would piously defend the system for allowing them to vote for“whoever.” But it also allowed partisans to scuttle the selectionmechanisms of the opposite party. I know liberals and libertarians whovoted in Washington state open primaries and caucuses (they had a dualsystem, actually; what a mess) for Pat Robertson for President. Theirreasoning was that by showing up for Robertson they would saddleRepublicans with a candiate who not only could not win, but would turnoff mainstream voters in droves. Sabotage! I know conservatives andlibertarians who turned the tables on the Democrats, too, voting forJesse Jackson. For the exact same reason.

Somehow, though, the system did not prohibit jackasses, though Altersays “open primaries” would. I don’t see much evidence for a change injackassery — more or less — after Washington’s new system came intoplay, either. I await the academic studies.

The current method usually gets called the “Top-Two Primary.” In theprimary, all candidates vie with one another, regardless of party. Thegeneral election takes the top two vote-getters from the primary andpits them against each other — even if they are members of the sameparty, or both declare allegiance to none.

This might seem like a boffo system, undermining thedominance of parties. And undermine them it does. One can declare a“party preference” even though, as Novoselic showed, the party inquestion may reject your membership, or the party may not even exist.

But the problems quickly become apparent. The general election —where the bulk of voters participate — is now shorn of independentchallengers, and all minor-party folk. It also means that, in theprimary, a same-party challenger to the incumbent can take first placeand stillface the incumbent in the general election — with a likely outcome(given incumbent’s advantage) of losing to the incumbent in the end.

One expert, Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, notes that this system would have prevented Jesse Venturafrom even appearing on the Minnesota ballot that he eventually won.Winger also notes that in this last election Washington’s legislature retained incumbents at a greater rate than in the past.

So it’s no surprise why California’s political establishment covetsthis system, and placed it on the June ballot. It looks like ananti-establishment reform. It feels like one. And, unless you have agood nose, it may even smell like one.

Wave away the politic perfume and its true stench emerges: The Top-Two Primary serves perfectly to further calcify the establishment.

Good thing is, next June, Californians get the final word. They can say (in effect) “you lie” to their insidious insiders. And there’s nothing uncivil about that. 


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.