The primary concern

Voting in the General Election is often too late

to make a difference, we need to make primaries more competitive

January 09, 2012|By Leo Linbeck III

For decades, Americans have been told that voting in the general election satisfies their civic duty. But in today's world, voting in the general is not enough. The electoral system has morphed to the point where the vast majority of congressional general elections are no longer relevant. Because more than 80 percent of congressional seats are in one-party districts, the key decision is not made in the general election — it is made in the primary of the party that controls that district.

As a result, increasing voter turnout in general elections — the goal of countless well-intentioned "reform" efforts — will do little or nothing to fix a broken system. Increased voter turnout in key primaries, however — in particular, primaries in which a commanding majority of registered voters belong to only one party — can have a profound impact on Congress, putting an end to the virtual lock too many incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives have on their seats.

At a time when the approval rating of Congress was only 17 percent, 86 percent of House incumbents were re-elected. This fact clearly indicates that the accountability system for Congress is broken.

Power in Congress is a function of seniority. The more times you get re-elected, the more power you can acquire. The powerful members of Congress are in "safe seats," representing districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic.

How safe are these seats? In 2010, the average margin of victory for incumbents in general elections was 26 percent. More than 80 percent of congressional districts are one-party districts, meaning the outcome of the general election is determined in the primary. So the powerful members of Congress are not accountable to the entire district but only to the party loyalists who vote in primaries.

This is why the Alliance for Self-Governance is promoting what we call the Primary Pledge. We believe the Primary Pledge Campaign, in which Americans commit to vote in congressional primaries, represents the single most promising effort by which we can restore accountability to Congress and to the federal government.

Consider Maryland's 6th Congressional District. In a recent public opinion survey, 64 percent of district voters said they would consider voting against or would definitely vote against the incumbent, and 93 percent agreed that the "country is on the wrong track." Yet, many of the voters who feel this way do not have a history of voting in the congressional primary where their vote would effect the most change.

Primaries, of course, are frequently uncompetitive. In 2010, 396 incumbents ran for re-election; only four lost in primaries. In all, 62 percent faced no primary challenge. Of the 38 percent who did face a primary opponent, the average margin of victory was 66 percent. And 2010 was not unique; from 2002-2008, only 12 incumbents lost their primaries. Over that same period, 13 incumbents died in office. In other words, God recalls more incumbents than primary elections do.

Over time, these career politicians become part of the Washington, D.C. establishment, answerable to the party leaders and to the special interests, and not to their constituents. This is a corrupt and corrupting system, and efforts to reform it through the general elections are futile.

But the system can be fixed in the primaries — because far fewer people vote in primaries. At present, only about 10 percent of the voting-age population bothers to vote in the dominant primaries.

This low primary turnout, while initially discouraging, also represents an opportunity to effect real change. Because only about 40,000 to 50,000 voters bother to participate in the primaries in any given district, a few thousand votes can determine the outcome.

Embarrassingly, I have been part of the 90 percent; I regularly vote in the general election but have never voted in a congressional primary. I always figured that since I was an independent, I didn't need to vote in primaries. But I'm committed to change my ways.

By participating in the dominant primaries in our respective districts, we can reassert control over a system hijacked by the special interests. By encouraging challengers to incumbents in the primaries, we can restore genuine competition to our elections and accountability to Congress.

By signing the Primary Pledge, voters simply promise to vote in primaries. By doing so, they can make sure incumbents face real challenges, reminding them that they are answerable to the people, not to the Washington insiders, party leaders, lobbyists and special interests.

Of course, we will help. We will communicate with voters who generally have not voted in primaries. We will remind pledge signers how to register, when primary elections take place, where to vote. We will inform them, for example, of which states have "open" primaries or which allow independent voters to participate. (Maryland's primaries are generally closed to independents.)

Through these efforts, the American people can retake control of the process. In this way, the Primary Pledge Campaign will promote the democratic principle that assures the accountability of Congress. Only through holding our elected officials accountable can we restore our system of self-governance.

Leo Linbeck III is president and CEO of Aquinas Companies, LLC and the co-chairman of the Alliance for Self-Governance.

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