THE LITANY of well-known Republicans passing on the chance to succeed John Kerry as senator underscores the extraordinary feebleness of the state GOP. It underscores as well the degree to which politics is broken in the Commonwealth. The answer, perhaps, is not some vain effort to revitalize the GOP, but rather to rethink our elections altogether.
With no effective two-party system in the state, Democrats have a kind of hegemony. Gubernatorial races excepted, general elections are often pointless affairs: The Democrat always wins. The “real” election, if you will, is the primary: a small-turnout, intramural event dominated by partisans and often won by someone securing well less than a majority of the vote. Moreover, once in office, always in office. Parties discourage internal fights, so incumbents — whether at the state level or the federal — safely stay incumbents. The politics we get is often inward turning and (judging by the parade of House speakers who have faced criminal investigation if not jail) corrupt, largely immune from the check of voter dissatisfaction.
The most-offered solution is to somehow improve the Republican Party so it can become a credible opposition. Maybe it just needs better candidates, goes the thinking. Or perhaps the cure is an improved grassroots, stronger town committees, and more committed volunteers. Alternatively, the GOP might consider recasting its politics, sloughing off its conservative social dogma and becoming something more socially liberal and economically moderate (I’ll plead guilty to having harbored that thought). These ideas have been bandied about for years, however, with little to show for them. Revitalization requires winning and — at least in Massachusetts — that not going to happen: People don’t vote for Republicans.
Perhaps we should consider something far different: getting rid of party-based primaries altogether.
The idea is that we would instead have preliminary elections, sometimes called “open primaries” or “top two” elections. The preliminary would be a free-for-all: Anyone who wants to run could run. All voters (not just party members) could vote. The top two vote-getters in the preliminary would then square off in a final. That might mean, as is traditionally the case, that a Democrat would face a Republican. But it could also mean a Republican would face a Republican or (much more likely in the Bay State) a Democrat would face a Democrat.
The widely-touted model for this is California, which adopted a “top two” system in 2010. But the system is also in use in a few other states (including Louisiana and Washington) and, notably, in some cities and towns in Massachusetts. Boston residents, for instance, choose their mayor and city councilors on a nonpartisan basis.
The reasons for abandoning party primaries are many. Open primaries encourage more candidates to run, give third-party candidates a better chance of making their case, and, since they have to appeal to all voters and ultimately secure a majority, push candidates away from the extremes. The result is a political system more responsive to voters and more focused on results.
In California, it was voters frustrated by partisan bickering who — through a referendum — forced the state to adopt the top-two system. In cities such as Boston, the preliminary system was born out of recognition that urban areas have too few Republicans to make any primary meaningful. What was true for Boston certainly now seems true for most of the state.
Not surprisingly, political parties hate the idea of top-two preliminaries: They considerably undercut party influence. On the other hand, top-two elections don’t eliminate parties. In Congress and the Legislature, elected pols would likely still caucus with a party. And candidates would be free to identify their party affiliation if they believed it might help their cause. (Interestingly, though, in Boston elections many candidates don’t — they try to appeal to voters on merits rather than labels.)
Open primaries are no panacea, but they would be an improvement. In Massachusetts, races would be more competitive, and we’d start to see real contests between candidates who — despite thinking themselves members of the same party — hold very different political views. And who knows what might happen if more states went to a top-two system? The hyper-partisanship eating away at our government could disappear, and Congress might actually get something accomplished.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.