ALL OTHER things being equal, primary elections give us candidates who are attractive to the most conservative half of the Republican voters and the most liberal half of the Democratic voters — and wholly unattractive to the rest of the partisans and the vast swath of independent, centrist voters.
Things aren’t equal, of course, when incumbents are involved, or when a lot of money is involved, but they’re equal often enough that the effect over time is the inexorable empowerment of the extremes, which makes our government either far more liberal or far more conservative than the electorate, or else gives us just enough of the far-too-liberal and the far-too-conservative officials to produce gridlock, since extremists consider compromise profane.
Whichever outcome, the government we get looks very little like our nation, or state, or, increasingly, our communities. And the extremification of the government feeds the extremification of the populace, producing a vicious cycle that further degrades the sensible center and, if unchecked, will lead eventually to the implosion of civil society.
In theory, it’s easy to reverse this trend: people from the sensible center can participate in the primaries, and candidates can bypass the primaries. In theory.
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The reality is that most people buy the idea that the primaries belong to the partisans, and so unless they are partisans — or aspire to displace the partisans, a la the economic libertarians and the tea party — they sit them out. And then grumble about the candidates the partisans pick for the general elections. Although this year’s 12 percent turnout in the June primaries was abnormally low, typical S.C. primaries draw only around 20 percent of registered voters. That means, roughly speaking, that each party’s nominees are selected by 5 percent of the voters (half of half of 20 percent) — and rejected, by implication, by 95 percent of eligible voters.
The reality is that while state law provides a straightforward way to bypass the primaries, candidates ignore it, and people who would make wonderful elected officials but refuse to try to pass the 5 percent litmus test don’t even consider it, because they think it’s either too much work or unlikely to pay off.
If only people would realize that the bypass isn’t so onerous or hopeless.
If only we could have, oh, I don’t know, an election-law debacle of such monumental proportions that it propelled dozens of candidates to try the work-around. Say, if the state Supreme Court properly interpreted a law that the Legislature bungled in rewriting and state officials misapplied, causing scores of candidates to be kicked off the ballot for doing what they were told to do.
Now, I’m not expecting a sea change in our politics as a result of this year’s bumper crop of petition candidates. The people who filed petitions on Monday are largely people who signed up to run in the primaries, who consider the incumbents too moderate. People who pass the 5 percent test. They are not the sensible-center candidates who could bring some sanity back to our politics, and since they now have to compete in the general election rather than the primary, they are unlikely to win. Some won’t even clear the signature-vetting process.
But many of them will; exponentially more than we’ve ever had before. And the mere fact that so many petition candidates make it onto the ballot demonstrates that, while it takes some work, getting enough signatures to get your name on the ballot is by no means an insurmountable challenge.
I suspect that collecting the signatures took less work for many than running a competitive primary campaign. After all, local and legislative candidates tell me they spend weeks walking the district, knocking on doors, to meet voters. Mounting a petition campaign simply means getting those voters’ signatures as well.
And what a difference that little extra can make come Election Day. Candidates tell voters they’re only asking them for the right to be on the ballot, but they know full well someone who signs their petition feels a connection. A sense of ownership. I put that candidate on the ballot. That can only help when that voter walks into the polling place in November.
Of course, the petition candidates still have to overcome the power of the straight-party ticket. No small thing, that; fully half of S.C. voters chose the couch-potato option in 2010, handing their brains over to the political party bosses; and the abdication of judgment tends to be even greater in the hyper-partisan context of a presidential election campaign.
But if even a handful of them manage to overcome all the odds and get elected, imagine the message that would send to the sort of candidates who can transform our politics.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.