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New York Sen. Charles Schumer recently declared: “Polarization and partisanship are a plague on American politics.” He says one of the main culprits is our party primary system. It is not a new criticism. Political scholars have long argued that when primary elections are restricted to voters from one party, nominees with the most extreme views often win. But some question whether open primaries – where voters can cross party lines — actually improve the electoral fortunes of moderate candidates. And others worry open primaries dilute a party’s ability to nominate their own candidate without outside interference. Diane and her guests discuss the role of primaries in today’s polarized politics.
- Elaine Kamarck senior fellow, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution.
- Gabriel Lenz associate professor of political science, University of California at Berkeley.
- Amy Walter national editor, Cook Political Report.
- Norman Ornstein resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; co-author with Thomas Mann of, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The vast majority of Americans do not vote in primaries. Some say this means each party's most extreme members end up choosing the general election candidates. Others argue open primaries do not necessarily lead to more moderate candidates or a better voter turnout.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the role of primaries in today's polarized politics, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. Joining us by phone from the University of California Berkeley where he is professor of political science, Gabriel Lenz.
MS. DIANE REHMI do invite you to form your own opinion. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MR. NORMAN ORNSTEINGreat to be with you, Diane.
MS. AMY WALTERThank you, Diane.
MS. ELAINE KAMARCKNice to be here.
REHMGood to have you. Norm Ornstein, if you would, summarize Chuck Schumer's piece for us. It really took issue with the primary system as it exists.
ORNSTEINYes, Diane. And Chuck Schumer, of course, is a leader in his party in the Senate and he laments what's happened in the Senate as has happened more generally in our politics. There's no overlap between the two parties anymore in ideological terms and he tries to look at the roots of some of it. And in his view, partly reflecting, as he does in his piece, on the surprise defeat of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader in a primary.
ORNSTEINThat primaries, which he attributes in part to reforms in the Democratic Party in the 1970s, which actually were about presidential politics, have exploded or become far more significant in congressional politics as well. They're dominated by a small group of voters who are more extreme and to move away from that, he basically endorses the nation adopting a version of what California has done, which is called a top two primary.
ORNSTEINAnd it's a primary where it's open to all the candidates. You can do it with no party affiliation, but all the candidates run. In the primary, the top two vote-getters then become the two candidates who run in the general election. And the idea is that when you open it up this way, you're gonna get more voters participating and in that process, you are more likely to end up without so many extreme candidates winning nominations.
REHMAll right. And turning to you Elaine Kamarck, it would seem that you've got different primary systems all over the country. Isn't that part of the problem?
KAMARCKWell, what's interesting about -- I love the fact the Chuck Schumer has gotten into this debate because for a long time, political scientists have known and practitioners have known that sort of the source of polarization is the primary system, that that's where it happens. So I'm glad he got into this debate. There's been, however, for the last two decades, a process of opening up the primaries.
KAMARCKIn other words, our thought is -- and it was even reflected in the Schumer piece -- is that only Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries, only Republicans can vote in Republican primaries. In fact, that's not true. There are only 11 states in the country that have purely closed primaries with party registration. So we have been opening up the primaries to systems where anybody can vote.
KAMARCKWe saw this in the Republican primary in Mississippi with Thad Cochran where, in fact, he ended up winning by getting Democrats to vote. That was perfectly within the law. It is within the law of every southern state, except for Florida, and yet, we've still seen polarization. So while the blanket primary, as this is called, probably wouldn't increase polarization, I'm not sure that it's the cure.
REHMGabriel Lenz, Norm mentioned that Chuck Schumer also talked about the primaries in California where you've got top two working. How had they, those primaries, helped moderate candidates?
MR. GABRIEL LENZWell, thanks for asking and thanks for having us on.
LENZWe ran a study in 2012 to see if we could find any sign of this effect of the top two primary introduction helping moderate candidates. And it was a fun study, interesting to do and we were really hopeful because like Chuck Schumer and like your panelists so far, we were very worried about polarization in the country.
LENZAnd much to our disappointment, we found very little sign that voters shifted towards moderate candidates when they could on the open ballot. And this is importantly just for House and state senate races where we were looking. We weren't actually looking at the Senate. And it was a very disappointing result for us. And it seemed partly to be driven by the fact that most voters in House primaries had no idea which candidate was moderate and which were extreme.
LENZThey put Tea Party candidates, moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats all in similar places in an ideological scale.
REHMAll right. And turning to you, Amy Walter, the open primary that Norm mentioned in Mississippi, what happened with Thad Cochran and Tea Party activist Chris McDaniel?
WALTERWell, Thad Cochran, recognizing that anybody can vote in a primary, went and tried to get the votes of people who traditionally don't turn out at Republican primaries, namely African-American voters. These are voters who are never going to vote for a Republican in a general election, but he went and made a pitch to those voters, saying hey, this is why you want me to stay in the United States Senate.
WALTERThis is how good I am. More importantly, he made the case for this is how terrible, right, he made -- Chris McDaniel is, come out and vote. And they did and it was clear that the African-American vote was essential. And I think that gets really to the heart of the issue here, which is it's not as much as just having a top two system is going solve this.
WALTERThe first thing we have to get to -- and Elaine mentioned this, too -- is breaking through the ideas among Americans about the role of the primaries. Number one, can they vote and, number two, they aren't very important. We drill it into voters' heads to show up in November. We have all kinds of organization out there trying to get people to the polls in November.
WALTERBut when we have now just a handful of competitive House races, when the House is pretty well sorted out, if you live anywhere in this country, you're probably in a safe Republican or a safe Democratic seat. We have to remind people that the more important vote may actually be in May or June or September, not in November.
WALTERAnd until we get turnout up beyond, in some of these House primaries it's at 3 or 4 percent, you're not gonna see any impact of a top two system 'cause it's the same people showing up to vote in a top two system that was voting in the old system.
REHMSo all we have are the third of the third showing up at primaries, Elaine.
KAMARCKAnd that's exactly why it's so important that this issue is become front and center. There are two general suggestions that have been made over the years about primaries. One is to open them up to voters from all parties and the second is to end gerrymandering of districts to create more competitive districts.
REHMAnd the third is...
KAMARCKAnd the third one...
REHM...to hold a single primary.
KAMARCKRight. The third one, which is endorsed by me and Brookings and the Bipartisan Policy Center hold a single day primary. The big difference between most of our elections and primaries, primaries are held on different days over a period of nine months. No one knows they are happening and so you can't...
REHMOr cares maybe.
KAMARCKWell, but the two things go together, see, because nobody knows about them, nobody understands, until it's too late, what happens in them. They don't get covered by press. And by the way, simultaneously with this, we've got a little bit of a perfect storm because local and state House reporters are disappearing, due to the financial situation of publishers.
REHMAll right. So you've got the issue of gerrymandering. You've got the proposal of a one-day primary. Is gerrymandering more important than a one-day primary, Norm?
ORNSTEINProbably not, Diane. We've got a lot of research on gerrymandering. It's a terrible problem. It's a problem because, in particular, so many of these districts are homogenous and you do not get a variation in terms of who people represent and they become echo chambers. But what we've learned is that that is probably more a function of what Bill Bishop, the journalist, called the Big Sort, people moving into areas where they're surrounded by like-minded people.
ORNSTEINAnd if we did gerrymandering that actually fit some of the other criteria that we'd want, compact districts and not ones that are shaped weirdly, it might make it worse. But I would make a larger point here.
REHMLet me stop you on the gerrymandering. Doesn't it depend on who does the gerrymandering?
ORNSTEINOf course it does. And, you know, if I had my druthers and I think, you know, Elaine and I have both, as many of our colleagues have, worked hard to try and reform this process to move state by state to having the kinds of independent nonpartisan commissions that we see in Iowa and Arizona and other places.
ORNSTEINWhat California had done in this regard has actually created more competitive -- as least a few more competitive districts and it certainly caused some heartburn for incumbents, more than we've seen in other places. And it would be wonderful if we can do that. And we get some gerrymandering that protects incumbents of both parties where the two-party ol' boy networks get together and others that are strongly tilted towards one party or the other.
ORNSTEINSo you see enormous distortions in a whole variety of states. In Illinois for the Democrats, in Pennsylvania, Florida and other places for the Republicans. That's not healthy nor is it healthy that African-Americans are packed into districts and that you've got a bunch of lily-white Republican districts in the South.
REHMNorm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Short break here. When we come back, we'll talk about some other ideas, take your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the primary system, how it has been, as Chuck Schumer puts it, somehow spoiled, spoiled by a number of factors. The fact that people don't come out to vote in primaries. The fact that you've got gerrymandering going on. People are simply voting within a system that mirrors what they think. And from you, Elaine Kamarck, you talked about the small number of people who actually come out to vote.
KAMARCKYeah, and we looked at primaries in 2000, in the decade of 2000. Under 10 percent of the voting-age population, votes in congressional primaries, you get a little -- somewhat more voters in Senate gubernatorial primaries if there's one in the state. You get obviously many more voters in midterm elections and a lot of voters in presidential elections. Which is why we came up with this idea of a one-day primary.
KAMARCKAnd you have to be really out of it to not know there's a presidential election happening. You may decide not to vote but at least you know it's happening. You can be a very conscientious citizen and not know that there's a congressional primary in your district.
REHMAnd you've just had one, Amy.
WALTERRight. So I live right across the river in Arlington, Va. We had a congressman there -- it's a very Democratic district -- Democratic congressman for over 20 years, decides to retire, open primary, free-for-all. This has to be one of the most well-educated political districts in the country. I have two lobbyists just on my block. And we had 34 -- I think 34,000 people turn out to vote.
ORNSTEINWhat did that do to the property values?
WALTERExactly. And so part of it too is -- and this is what's difficult about getting people engaged in primaries. I think part of the reason people didn't show up in this primary was that all the candidates were essentially the same. Nobody had any major differences in terms of issues. Their styles were different. And what we're seeing too is style actually matters now. So whether you're getting a bomb-throwing kind of candidate versus a conciliatory kind of candidate, whether you're going to get somebody who says, I want to work across the aisle versus somebody who says, I'm really just interested in stopping everything. And those are hard to ferret out, even for your most conscientious kind of voter.
WALTERSo, you know, if you're just a voter that's going on issues, in these primaries you're not going to find much difference. It's really about the kind of person you're electing to congress. And as we've seen, that matters a lot.
REHMAnd Gabriel Lenz, what is the voter turnout considering the kinds of systems that are now in place in California?
LENZYeah, I think the first time they implemented the top two ticket two years ago turnout was at one of the lowest points ever in recent California history. So giving them -- giving voters more options on the open ballot when they can choose any candidate they want did not appear to increase turnout one bit. If anything, it went down, which is really too bad. But I think it -- I think all of the discussion points needs to keep in mind something else about voters, which is just we forget how little they know about politics and policy, even the regular voters.
LENZOne of my favorite statistics about that is, what percent of voters do you think know that the Democratic Party is more prochoice than the Republican Party. And this is -- abortion is one of those issues that's been on the agenda for 34 years, but it's about half. And some of those people are getting it right just by guessing.
REHMHere is an email from Steven that you can respond to, Gabriel. It says, "California's blanket primary system is top two. What about the idea of expanding it to top four? Here's the reason. Top two locks in the status quo either two Democrats, two Republicans or one of each. Top four is likely to include an independent or minor party candidate. Even better, perhaps ideal would be top four with ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting." What do you think about that, Gabriel?
LENZYeah, it's certainly a criticism of the top two ballot that people like Chuck Schumer and others may support it precisely because it makes it harder for third parties to get on the ticket. At the same time, the kind of voting system we have in the United States pushes us towards just two party -- pushes us toward the parties (unintelligible) to form just two parties. So my hunch is it wouldn't make any difference.
LENZAnother thing I think to keep in mind here is just again, how little voters know. And if you add yet another person they have to learn about in a general election or two more people, they'll probably show up on Election Day having even less to know or to vote on (unintelligible) ...
REHMInteresting. What do you think, Norm?
ORNSTEINI've endorsed this combination but it has to be done in combination. And rank choice voting or instant runoff voting can have an impact. You know, if you end up with four candidates, it's true that you might end up splitting some votes. But if you then have to give your preferences, what's going to happen is you're not going to have a situation where a Ralph Nader or a Pat Buchanan can shift the election in and of themselves. It'll move things in a different direction.
ORNSTEINAnd one of the things -- one of my goals here frankly it I want to give lawmakers who think about lifting their heads up out of the foxhole to compromise on something who now face the threat of being knocked off in a primary. A little more armor of protection so that they're willing to do that. And what a top two or top four primary with rank choice voting would do is give them some of that armor of protection.
REHMBut let me ask you how you feel about the single day primary.
ORNSTEINOh, I'm wildly enthusiastic about it.
ORNSTEINBecause -- but, you know, I think the larger point here, Diane, when Tom Mann and I wrote our book "It's Even Worse Than it Looks" which tells you what we think about our current politics, and we spent half of it looking at what we could do about it, there was much less attention paid to changes inside the institutions than outside. And the core of it was, we need to enlarge the electorate. That's not just in primaries. It's in the general election as well.
ORNSTEINAnd it has to be done in a synergistic way. So I'd love to see a top two or top four primary with preference voting and a national primary day. I want to make voting easier. I'd like to move elections to the weekend. You know, I've done this organization WhyTuesday.org. If we had -- you know, if I could wave a magic wand and we could do a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday or its equivalent around the country, you are going to do -- you're going to take away the rush-hour periods. If we could change the registration system to make it easier.
ORNSTEINThere's no reason in this current day and age -- when I return a car -- a rental car, somebody comes up with a little handheld device, scans the license plate. And in 30 seconds I have a personalized printout of my charges.
REHMOf course. Of course.
ORNSTEINWhy shouldn't I be able to vote by where I work or vote in a vote center at the Verizon Center or Nationals Park and have a personalized ballot printed out there? There are a lot of things that we could do to make it easier for people to vote.
REHMAndy Amy Walter, how likely is it that the congress will do anything to make it easier to vote?
WALTERWell, we're obviously seeing it in some of these states, they're making it harder to vote, right. And whether that is putting restrictions on some of the things that Norm is talking about in terms of expanding early vote days, whether it's restricting the kinds of people who can vote like students, where they can register to vote and things like that. So that's one piece of it.
WALTERBut I think the other piece of it is, when congress -- congress has in many ways itself to blame, all right. It's approval rating now is somewhere near a serial killer. In fact, I think maybe serial killers are more popular than members of congress. And why should people go and vote? Why does it matter, right? They see a congress that's totally dysfunctional. They see nothing happening on issues they care about. And so of course they check out. And so then it becomes this self-perpetuating cycle, right. Why should we care? They don't get anything done. And then the people who do vote are the people who want to see more conflict. And so we just keep going around and around in circles.
WALTERThe thing that I found the most interesting too though is even when we have a lot of attention, so the Texas primary where Ted Cruz was elected in that primary two years ago, that was a very high-profile expensive, millions of dollars being spent. And 1.4 million people turned out to vote. There are 1.8 million registered voters just in Houston alone, all right. So -- and that's an open -- anybody can vote in the Texas primary.
WALTERSo even when you put a lot of attention and money and effort, that hasn't been enough. And it was also very clear who Ted Cruz was and who is opponent David Dewhurst was. That still wasn't enough to get people engaged.
REHMWhy not, Elaine?
KAMARCKWhy not what?
REHMWhy isn't attention, money, lots of publicity enough to get people engaged?
KAMARCKWell, I think that -- let's go back to Amy's district. I did a little calculation. So voter turnout of the voting-age population, assuming it's the average size congressional district in her district is 4.5 percent.
KAMARCKOkay. Now, in that same district come 2016 in the presidential election we know that probably 50 percent or more of the voting-age population is going to vote. So one of the issues here is voting in general. But I think the more specific issue is, we have got to make the primary as important as the general. And we've got to get people interested in the primary because what happens is that people are getting turned off. The only time they wake up is the general election. And by the time they get to the general election they have very bad choices in front of them. They're further alienated.
KAMARCKAnd yet the basic difference between the primary system and the general election system is they happen on different days. Whether it's the presidential primary or the congressional and state primaries, they are on different days. And being on different days means that it's not a national news story. It doesn't get the coverage. It doesn't get the attention. And it doesn't get the interest. And guess what? People don't know what's happening.
REHMSo you would put as number one in terms of your reform of the primary system.
KAMARCKYes. I would put number one, one primary a day. Number two I put nonpartisan redistricting because I think there is a little bit to be gotten there. And number three I would put the California ballot experiment or other experiments that essentially open up primaries to all voters.
REHMGabriel Lenz, how would you rank reform? What would you put at the top/
LENZYeah, that's a great question. I think that given out little voters are interested in politics and how much more important they find other aspects of their lives, like their kids and their jobs and their work, that sort of thing, it's really tough to get voters to care and be interested. And the Ed Cruz example is just a great one there.
LENZSo one strategy is to move toward the system where people only have to vote once every four years or every few years, which is the system that most other democracies have, like Britain. And that way you only need to get voters' attention once. And that seems to work. And it's a real problem in America that we ask our voters to do all these things.
LENZBut I think all the suggestions that have been made are great and would make some probably small difference. I guess probably moving the election to the weekend would increase turnout somewhat. That would probably be my most -- the one I think would make the most difference.
REHMInteresting. Okay. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Okay. We're going to hear what our listeners have to say. they come up with usually quite brilliant ideas. Let's go first to St. Louis, Mo. Hi there, Linda. You're on the air.
LINDAHi, Diane. Thank you.
LINDAI am a local elected official and I ran for alderman position in my town back in April and I beat an incumbent with 76 percent of the vote, basically doubled voter turnout. And I am a moderate Republican. I'm not shy about that, and I would get a lot of people come up to me and -- because I really enjoy public service and I really love working for my constituents. And they will say, well what are you going to do next? What's your next move? And I basically tell them very frankly, I’m like, I can't go any higher. I'm in a nonpartisan position. I love it but because of the primary system I would just be crucified in a primary.
LINDAAnd I understand that And so I'm very happy with what I'm doing, but there are a lot of people like me that are local officials that are very moderate that really love public service, have, you know, the right ideas but are very limited as far as they can go. And I think that what you're all speaking of is a big problem. And I don't know all the solutions but it's basically -- and the way that I got people to get to the polls was very targeted communication and really, like, using a voter turnout model that was just based on, like, a motivating factor. So I just wanted to share that with you all.
REHMOkay. thanks for calling. Go ahead, Elaine.
KAMARCKLinda, you know, one of the things that even though the blanket primary has been sort of disappointing so far in its results, I think that one of the good things about it is for candidates like you. If you were to run in an old fashioned Republican primary, you would be number two which means you'd be out of it in a Republican district. In the blanket primary in a very -- say in a Republican district, you might get -- number one might be somebody more radical than you but at least you would get to the November ballot. You would get to the ballot where with a bigger electorate you might have a chance.
KAMARCKSo I'm not giving up on the blanket primary idea even though the results of it so far haven't been really what we expected.
ORNSTEINWell first, bless you, Linda.
ORNSTEINI wrote a column that's out today on the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party and moderates are not a part of it at this point. But I think we shouldn't ignore another reality. The climate for problem-solving candidates to run these days is an awful one. The climate is much better for ideologues or charlatans.
ORNSTEINThe money system, which we have not talked about and obviously is one in which we could spend many shows on ...
REHM...and have done.
ORNSTEIN...yeah, is a disaster. What you have to do to raise the money. And the fact is the money now goes to slime the reputation of your opponent. And you will end up doing -- having the same thing done to you. So we've got a lot of things that we have to change, including a larger, courser culture that basically denigrates candidates, demonizes people. There are many things here that -- we have to begin by changing the structures and we have to change the money system. But there's more.
REHMNorm Ornstein and we'll take a short break here. When we come back, we've got lots of callers, email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the current primary system in place. Here's an email from Eric. He says, "A national primary day for presidential candidates would make it so that only the wealthiest campaigns can compete. While that's already true, at least now lesser-funded candidates can affect the debate. Would this not be lost in a national presidential primary?" Amy Walter?
WALTERMaybe I don't understand. Which piece would be lost in this?
REHMThe ability of lesser candidates to have a bigger say.
WALTEROh, because they're going to get drowned out by big money?
WALTERI don't know if that's necessarily the case. In fact, if you're a candidate who is a lesser-funded candidate, the one place you can go to get some of that attention is the media. And as we've all discussed, they're not covering a June or May or April primary. They will be covering a national primary. And you will get probably much more attention from free media than you ever would on a traditional primary.
REHMAnd here is a very frank comment from Chad, who says, "You can implement as many voting reforms as you want, but the problem is people are jaded. I'm speaking for myself, but I'm sure others feel the same. There is a lack of confidence…
REHM…in the system."
WALTERI think Chad's exactly right. There -- lack of confidence and competence. And I think Linda, from St. Louis, sort of gave us a great example of that. Right here is somebody who is taking time out of her life to be a public servant, who doesn't believe she can go any further because of the way that the system is set up. So we're leaving out some of those really good people from the system. At the same time, I don't want to be totally pessimistic…
WALTER…so I'm going to do just a teeny bit of optimism here.
WALTERMaybe it's naivete. You all can laugh, but there is an opportunity in this climate, I think, for the kinds of candidates, like Linda, who say competence is the issue here. We're tired of the ideologues. I see all these jaded people. I see people who are frustrated with Washington. Let me tell you why you should elect me. Because you want people who are competent and who aren't just going to go in and blow up the place.
WALTERAnd I think there is room in the debate for those candidates. And I think more of those candidates are going to get elected. I think we're going to see in this election, both sides right now are so despised, that you're going to see candidates now running less on -- okay, let's just see if we can…
WALTERExtreme. And let's try to come together to find at least an answer for some of it.
REHMYou know what disappointed me? Chuck Schumer wrote that column for the New York Times. Our producer, Susan Neighbors, called his office four times, spoke with the press people, and they blew her off. If he took the time to write that column for the New York Times, why isn't he on this program? I'm going now to David, in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning everyone. It's such a pleasure to have a discussion about how to improve our democracy with such thoughtful people. So thank you for this show today, Diane. I'm curious what they think the downside to compulsory voting. I mean, when I research it in Australia they say it removed the polarity, the elections were less manipulated. And then when I think about some of the choices, you know, if Americans were left to just choose whether they wanted to be a part of jury duty or whether we really wanted to pay taxes or not, would anybody do it?
DAVIDWould we pay taxes? Would we show up to jury duty? I think it's one of those things that would fit in the same category. And I truly don't understand what the downside is. And why aren't some presidential candidates saying this could really be our solution.
ORNSTEINI've been a long-time advocate of this. And it's actually a core part of my book with Tom. We actually call it compulsory attendance at the polls because in Australia you don't have to vote, you just have to show up.
ORNSTEINYou can vote for none of the above. And if you don't show up and you don't write a letter explaining why you couldn't be there -- you were sick, you were traveling, the dog ate your vote card -- you are subject to a fine that's roughly $15. Since the Australians have implemented the system, which is now over seven decades, they've gone from a turnout which was pretty much like ours in a presidential election -- 50 percent -- to over 90 percent in every election.
LENZBut it's not just that you have a higher turnout. That's not an indication of health. You know, the former Soviet Union had 98 percent, North Korea just had 100 percent. But what they will tell you in Australia, as David suggested, is if you know that your base is going to be there, and you know that the other side's base is going to be there, you don't focus on scaring the bejesus out of your side to get them to turn out, or suppressing the other side. You focus on the persuadable voters in the middle. And it changes the dialogue.
ORNSTEINIt changes what you talk about and how you talk about issues. The wedge issues are not discussed as much. And, at the same time, what they've learned from research in Australia is that over these decades it has been inculcated into Australians that this is a part of your obligation as a citizen. And they actually pay a little bit more attention.
ORNSTEINSo if I could wave a magic wand and do it, I would do it.
REHMGabriel, what do you think?
LENZYeah, I would also support that reform. You see it in a number of countries, but it's been most studied in Australia. And it seems to help. I think the one -- there's, again, the limitation that a lot of the people who would turn out, but -- in that sort of system, but wouldn't otherwise turn out, they may be very uninformed, they may be casting their ballot somewhat randomly for whatever candidates happen to be there, but still, I think the net effect is going to be positive.
REHMYou know, you've mentioned that a number of times, Gabriel. The people not being informed. Say more about that. I mean, with all of the information that is out there in all the media, why do you think it is that too many people are really uninformed voters?
LENZYeah, well, I spend quite a bit of some time talking with them. And I think it's partly just due to people not finding politics inherently interesting. Some people, like of all us on the show and many of your listeners love politics, find it absolutely fascinating, want to pay attention to it, want to talk about it. That's probably true for maybe 10 percent of the public.
REHMBut is it because they don't think that politics affects them personally?
LENZYou know, they probably haven't thought about it enough to really know. It's just not on their -- it's not on their radars. And I think that we -- along with all these reforms, one of the ones that we really should think hard about -- which I don't know anyone who's really succeeded in doing yet -- is how can we make it easier for voters -- for the public just to learn these things?
LENZThere's a bunch of evidence that when there's only three television stations in the United States in the '60s and '70s and they all ran news at 6:00 p.m., that voters were actually quite a bit more informed about politics because they had no other choice on their television but the news at 6:00 p.m. And it's hard, but it's something that I think we need to think about with these reforms.
LENZThat when voters have -- when we're asking voters to make these decisions, but not making it really easy for them to have the information they want and not going to necessarily help make better decisions, even though they would like to.
REHMInteresting. All right. Let's go to Tony, in St. Petersburg, Fla., on this very subject. You're on the air.
TONYThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
TONYAnd also thank you for your show. I think you have always really good, interesting discussions on things that are important.
REHMI'm glad. Thank you.
TONYAnd so I thank you for your service and I thank you for having this type of show. One of the things that comes to mind to me, in all of this discussion that everyone is having, is the role of the media. And I think part of the problem that we have, and part of the reasons why people don't vote, is because they are disgusted with how the Congress is working. That's number one. They don't see, you know, it's the partisanship and the vitriol back and forth. So no one sees it working. They don't see the government working.
TONYThat's number one, but number two, the role of the media, basically with the talking heads where, you know, things are basically brought to a Jerry Springer level. And things -- there isn't -- there is no middle ground. There aren't any voices in the middle. There aren't any -- there aren't any people that are really basically supporting the type of show that you have -- when it comes to television -- where there's an apt discussion of both sides.
TONYIt's really always going to be the left versus the right. And this is what people see. And those are the people that -- those are the voices that get heard, the ones that are on the extreme. Those are the ones that get a lot of media attention.
REHMAll right. And Norm, a comment?
ORNSTEINI couldn't agree more. I think it's an -- there's a bigger problem, which is that the business models in the media now favor tribal media. You know, you make a lot of money if you basically divide people and polarize and demonize. And you put together cable television news, you know, a good example of this is CNN proudly bring back "Crossfire," you know, to -- as if that's going to improve discourse. But with talk radio, not just the national, but the local talk radio -- and now the amplification of social media -- and it's a problem.
ORNSTEINAnd I think partly what Tony was getting at is that this has become infotainment. And in this, you know, fragmented news environment, how are you going to draw people in? Shock value does it. I actually think Jerry Springer would embarrassed by what he would see on cable television news these days or broadcast television news.
REHMWhat do you think, Elaine?
KAMARCKWell, I think there's a second aspect to this, which is the -- literally, the almost complete disappearance of local and state house political reporting. That in other words, if you're having an important primary in a Republican district in a state where there are issues at stake, no one is there to report on it.
REHMI want to give a shout out to WAMU news department, which really has done a thorough job of following not only what happens here in D.C., but Maryland, Virginia.
REHMSo, you know, some of us are still trying, Amy.
WALTERAnd that's what happens because you don't -- you have this sort of vacuum when it comes to local issues. We now are all primed off of national issues. Right?
WALTERSo this idea of all politics being local is sort of gone, that I'm voting in a primary -- and again, I'm going to go back to my home district -- but we had a county board election, I was getting mail -- this a county board election -- talking about issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and Obamacare, which by the way the local county board in Arlington has no influence on. But that's supposed to be a primary. Right?
WALTERWhat that says to me is, hey, here are my views on national issues. Now you know what kind of candidate I'm going to be. Instead of saying, here's my plan to solve our big problem with the dump or the school or whatever that is. So just think about that. That's starting at the county level. We've done research and found at the Cook Political Report, almost 100 percent of the ads run in Republican primaries in some of these southern states, for state legislative candidates, featured an anti-Obama attack line.
WALTERThese are state legislators who have nothing to do with federal government. So we have now taken out the local and we've nationalized it. So of course the discourse is going to be more polarized because that's what our national environment is.
REHMAmy Walter, she's national editor of the Cook Political Report. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see, we've got -- I'm trying to find him -- John, in Olney, Md. You're on the air.
JOHNYes. I have a -- well, I don't think there is such a thing as informed voter. I have voted straight democratic for 60 years now. And, you know, on the theory of that. But there's too many -- for most people, there's too much junk on there. I have to vote for the board of education. I had to vote for -- pick six of eight delegates to the Democratic Convention. I have no idea.
JOHNVote for judges? I have to vote for -- I vote against them all the time, but I know they're going to get elected. Pick three of three. I mean, all this -- there's -- everything about the ballot is discouraging to go there and wait.
REHMNow, that's really interesting.
WALTERI think that's exactly right. I feel the same way. My job is to follow politics and I spend a lot of time thinking about that, too. This ballot initiative, the way it's written, it's like 200 pages long. What is it really saying? I don't know. I just wanted to get in and vote for this person and now I'm stuck here wading through the process.
REHMHow did it get that way? It used to be simpler to vote, didn't it, Norm?
ORNSTEINWell, there are a couple of things that have happened. One is we have greatly spread the number of offices, which -- for which we have elections. We do have many more elections. And that is a part of the problem. But we've also had a great expansion of initiatives and referendums in a lot of different places. And I think, you know, we probably -- all of us would have to confess that you go to fill out a ballot and no matter how closely you follow things, there hasn't ever been an election where I haven't had at least one or two places where I look and I have not a clue…
ORNSTEIN…as to who these people are.
ORNSTEINOr what this initiative is all about. And then you have to make a choice about whether you're going to abstain or not.
REHMMy husband -- my late husband always used to call someone he knew followed politics closely to get his advice.
KAMARCKYes. That's right.
KAMARCKI think that's what most of us do.
KAMARCKIs you follow somebody -- you call someone who has followed the county board and you say, okay, what -- who should I vote for here? That's what most people do do.
REHMSo who would be -- and I'm talking here in the larger national scheme of things -- who do you think who is currently in the political office would be in favor of a single primary day, Norm?
ORNSTEINI actually think that this is one of those ideas -- unlike many of the voting reforms, where the parties differ on whether you want to enlarge the electorate or suppress the electorate. A national primary day, I think, can get broad bipartisan support. Whether it will have any momentum in a Congress that is doing nothing is another matter. But, you know, this is one that ought to be able to find broad support.
KAMARCKI agree. It'll have broad support. And Congress doesn't need to do it. State election days, primary days are set by states. They're not set by Congress. And so states could, in fact, come together around one or maybe several primary days, as they have, by the way, over the years in the presidential primary system. So you don't necessarily need Congress to do this. And I think parties have an interest in this.
KAMARCKThe Republicans would be looking right now at their second six years in control of the Senate, had it not been for Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012. And so the parties have a significant stake in reforming the system.
WALTERI think that is the case, and yet, at the same time, state parties also love to have local control. And so I'm wondering, too, what happens in states -- I keep going back to Virginia -- but that have conventions. Right? So part of the process is they like the conventions because they also like the control who shows up and votes.
REHMAll right. Well, let's hope today's discussion at least keeps the conversation going in a positive way. Thank you all.
ORNSTEINThank you, Diane.
REHMAmy Walter, Norman Ornstein, Elaine Kamarck and Gabriel Lenz. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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