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National Politics|By Amy Walter, October 16, 2013

By now it's clear we’ve got big problems with our political system. We also have lots of ideas for the causes of our current dysfunction.  Redistricting! SuperPACS! Tea Party! The Media!

What we haven't spent enough time talking about is a solution.

If one of the biggest disincentives to compromise is the fact incumbents are more worried about placating their base than winning over swing voters, we need to spend more time looking at our primary process for answers.

Many argue that the rules of party primaries contribute to the problem of polarization. They restrict access to only the most committed partisans who, in turn, vote for the candidate with the most ideologically "pure" platform.

According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, there are 24 states (or state parties) that hold “closed primaries” where only those registered with a party may vote in that party’s primary. Another eight have “semi-closed” primaries where those registered as independents can vote in either party’s primary, but a voter registered with a party can only vote in his/her party primary.

The way to solve the problem, the thinking goes, is to open up the process to every registered voter, especially that growing segment of the electorate that identifies as independent. Invite everyone to participate and you’ll get a more diverse – read: more moderate – electorate.  

Better yet, adopt a primary system like California where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to the November election. The theory of the top-two system is that it allows the possibility of a moderate to emerge from a primary in  even the most ruby red or dark blue CD.  Voters in those heavily partisan districts get to choose the kind of partisan they want to represent them instead of being stuck with the candidate who gets the most votes in the primary and a candidate from the other party who has no chance to win in November.
Yet, it's also clear that primary structure alone isn't the only reason for the proliferation of polarizing candidates. Texas and Indiana, which have open primaries, produced Ted Cruz and Richard Mourdock. Nevada’s closed primary gave us Sharron Angle. Of the 33 members of the House that the Cook Political Report has identified as the most consistently opposed to bi-partisan legislation, 70 percent are from states that have open primaries. Two even come from California (McClintock and Rohrabacher).  Neither one of those California Republicans had a primary challenge in 2012.

Instead, there is a more fundamental problem plaguing the primary process: no one votes in them. It doesn’t matter if the primary is open, closed or has a top-two system like California. Turnout in all three is miserably low.  Just 22 percent of registered voters turned out in the 2012 Indiana Senate primary. In Texas, 1.4 million people voted in the GOP Senate primary. For some perspective, there are 1.8 million registered voters in Harris County (Houston) alone.

And, that top-two system in California, which was just instituted last year, hasn't been any more successful in getting people to the polls. In the June 2012 primary, just 31 percent of Californians turned out to vote, the second lowest since 1916. In Los Angeles County, home of the epic and expensive Berman vs. Sherman contest, turn-out was a measly 22 percent.

It hasn’t always been this bad, at least in California. The very user-friendly Secretary of State website features historical participation in statewide primary elections from 1916-2012. It shows that California voters haven’t always been so electorally absent. From 1950-1979, turnout among registered voters averaged 66 percent. That averaged dropped to 44 percent from 1980-2006.

I’m no scholar of California political history, but I would surmise that lower participation is linked in part to lowered expectations of the federal government. The more fed up voters are with the process, the less likely they want to participate in it.

Moreover, our civic engagement with voting seems to begin and end in the fall of even numbered years. There is very little public focus, pressure, or coverage of a primary. Groups like “Rock The Vote” or “No Labels” should spend more time educating the public about the importance of voting in primaries. It’s nowhere near as sexy as the presidential campaign, but it could have a bigger impact.

In America, we get the Congress we vote for. And right now, we are getting a Congress that 20 to 30 percent of the electorate voted for.  If those fed up with the system want to do something about it, they need to show up in March, April, or September as well as in November. Unfortunately, however, we know that the more dysfunctional Congress looks, the harder it will be to convince average Americans to participate in the process at all.  The 2014 primaries in Texas and Illinois are right around the corner and will coincide with what is expected to be yet another debt ceiling/budget fight and more record low ratings for Congress. So much for increasing voter turn-out.