Sullivan: Replace primaries with run-off elections

By Brendan Sullivan

I am probably more liberal than you. I’m in favor of all sorts of left-wing policies, a public… I am probably more liberal than you. I’m in favor of all sorts of left-wing policies, a public option in health care being the tamest of them. But I’ve spent two years watching partisan hacks in Congress refuse to think rationally about any piece of legislation the other side has put forth, and I’m coming around to the idea that radicals, no matter how much I agree with them, have no business representing us in Congress.

With giant majorities in Congress and a solidly liberal president, the Democrats of 2008 wasted no time trying to force through monumental legislation into law. In a completely defensive stance, Republicans took a big step to the right and established themselves as the “Party of No” to combat a perceived excessive liberalism. The result? No one is happy.

The 2010 midterms gave us divided government — a great thing, forcing both parties into proactive movement — but also swept in a slew of ultra-conservative/libertarian representatives, including Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Pat Toomey here in good old Pennsylvania. Instead of viewing the morass in Washington as a reason to come to the middle, voters favored the fringe yet again. I am frightened.

All is not the fault of the electorate, however. Our Byzantine system of elections does all it can to elect partisans. I’d like to take the recent Pennsylvania Senate election as an example of the negative repercussions of the system and suggest a simple alternative.

A few background notes: Arlen Specter, after serving in the Senate since 1980 as a Republican, switched parties in 2009 because he knew he was unelectable in the Republican Party. He knew he was, as if it were a pejorative, too moderate, according to statements he made when he announced the party switch. As a result, he was seen as an opportunist by Democratic voters, according to the Washington Post, and consequently lost the primary race to Joe Sestak. Pat Toomey breezed through the Republican primary and put up good numbers for a win in the general.

But if Arlen Specter was the middle ground between Sestak and Toomey, why was he not re-elected? He would have been closer to my views than Toomey, and closer to Republican views than Sestak; doesn’t that make him the best candidate for the wider electorate? It does, but clinging to a party primary system has removed the option of a truly middle-of-the-road representative.

The solution is to abandon the party primary system in favor of a two-round run-off election. According to the Ace Project, a run-off is a simple method of election and is already being used in countries around the world.

The basic gist is this: All primary candidates run in the same field, and voters decide on who best matches their views regardless of party affiliation.

In our example, this means Specter never would have felt he needed to change parties to be re-elected, saving him from the taint of disingenuousness.

After the first round of the run-off, the top two vote-getting candidates move on to the second round, currently called the general election. Considering that in a run-off Specter could have pulled moderate votes from both parties, I am confident that he would not have finished last in a field of him, Toomey and Sestak, keeping in mind again that he would not have suffered the embarrassment of switching parties. In the second round, Specter would have easily been able to win over the more partisan candidate Sestak or Toomey.

The incredible power of the run-off system is to allow for the election of moderate candidates, who could not please 50 percent of either party, but could easily please 50 percent of the whole of the body politic.

Truth be told, I never really liked Arlen Specter. I disagreed with a whole host of his positions, but what he had that neither Sestak nor Toomey has is the ability to compromise, to see the advantages and disadvantages of each side’s policy initiatives and to make his decisions after careful, thoughtful deliberation. Not to mention the seniority he accumulated over his years in the Senate, an advantage that is nothing to sneeze at.

I am a radical, and I like radical policies. But a run-off election is not a radical solution; it is a simple way to ensure that the middle ground, and not just the partisan heavies, are heard and represented.

Write Brendan at [email protected]