In the spirit of Washington’s Birthday, I thought I’d write up my thoughts about a better way to elect candidates for office in Montana: a system like that in place in Washington, in which the top two candidates from a primary advance to the general election, rather than the winners of the respective party primaries. If two Republicans are the leading vote winners in the spring, then two Republicans square off in the fall. If it’s two Democrats, then they square off. There wouldn’t be any changes to the election calendar required, just a new way of thinking.
Why should political parties get to have the state pay for elections run for their benefit, rather than for the benefit of voters as a whole? A “top two” system will put elections back to what they are supposed to do, selecting the best candidate for an office.
Better Representation of the Electorate
I’m prepared to concede the Montana is a more conservative state than it often appears to be from my vantage point here in Helena; however, I’m not willing to concede that it’s as conservative as the legislators running the current mockery of a session seem to believe. Why are they so far to the right? Because of a primary and general election system that generates candidates on the extremes, rather than those who represent the views of the districts they “represent.”
The current party primary system empowers people like Roger Koopman, who can blackmail candidates by attacking them for being insufficiently “Republican” or “conservative.” It creates Legislatures during which which nullification schemes, concealed weapons in bars, and militias can receive serious “debate,” and even passage. It rewards extremism rather than pragmatism.
The system is broken if it’s meant to represent what the voters really think—and a “top two” would lead to more candidates being elected who represent the values of their districts.
Better Educated Voters
The current system simply makes it too easy on voters. Wait for the general election and simply vote for the candidate identified as a D or an R if you haven’t taken the initiative to research the candidates or had the opportunity to hear their messages. I think we can all admit to having voted for a candidate simply because of her party affiliation—a top two system would require voters to make more educated choices, perhaps even between two Democrats or two Republicans.
Ravalli County just elected a county treasurer who basically couldn’t count, largely because of party affiliation. The “top two” system would absolutely make candidates have to work harder to inform voters and voters work harder to learn about those they vote for.
Better Odds of Bipartisan Compromise
Having tracked a lot of votes during this session, it seems like many are either nearly unanimous or almost entirely party-line. More legislators operating outside of the ideological extreme seem much more likely to be willing to compromise. I know that there are people in both the House and Senate right now who could work to forge common-sense shared solutions to some of the state’s pressing issues, but the hyper-partisanship created by the current primary system makes such compromise nearly impossible to imagine.
Better Candidates, From Any Party or None At All
Maybe the best feature of a “top two” system is that the best candidate can win an election, with or without party affiliation. In some parts of the state, that might mean a Tea Party candidate, in others a Green candidate. Better yet, some candidates may be elected without party affiliation. Compare that with the current system, in which merely winning a party primary practically ensures a general election win, no matter the quality of the candidate.
I would love to see the kind of extended campaign that might take place between two Democrats in a Missoula district or two Republicans in a Havre district. The party composition of the Montana Legislature might not change at all, but the quality of those members would have to increase.
A “top two” system would make primaries matter and increase voter turnout. All too often, voters don’t even have a choice right now during primaries and don’t bother to head to the polls. A system that encouraged Montana voters to get educated and vote twice during the year will be good for candidates and the electorate.
Both conservatives and liberals like to imagine that their views make them the heirs of the Founding Fathers, but perhaps we should look more closely to the ideas of the first President, who built a Cabinet of political and personal rivals, chosen for their talents rather than their political affiliation. Washington famously warned against the development of parties in his farewell address to the nation, arguing that reliance on parties would lead to bad governance:
They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
If the current session of the Montana Legislature isn’t proof of Washington’s fears, I wonder what else could be. Perhaps it’s time for those who want to be the heirs of Jefferson and Hamilton to consider making our elections about the best candidates once again, rather than a game played by the parties.