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David Helfenbein

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A Way to Fix Our Politically Polarized State?

Posted: 05/30/2012 1:50 pm

I recently attended an event in New York City held by The Common Good, featuring Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors of the new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.

Mann and Ornstein discussed the importance of expanding the electorate in order to decrease polarization in American government. In their book, they write how Republican-dominated state governments have moved in the past two years to narrow the franchise for partisan political gain. The authors believe that such concerted efforts to raise roadblocks to voting haven't been evident since the days of the poll tax in the 1950s and 1960s and they believe that these new efforts may increase but also note that laws to restrict or constrain voting via voter ID or other methods in Mississippi, Texas and South Carolina must be cleared in advance by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As evidence has shown, voter ID laws place both a costly and high burden on individuals which leads to the disenfranchisement of the poor and also affects many minority voters.

The proposals that Mann and Ornstein suggest (should voter ID laws be enacted) include mandating that people must be able to obtain any government ID required for voting for free and at a reasonable proximity to voting locations and require that polling places accept student IDs in addition to government issued IDs.

The legal and political consequences of disenfranchisement are, of course, not new. According to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, jurisdictions that have a history of suppressing minority voters must demonstrate that the newly enacted measure will not disproportionately disenfranchise registered minority voters. New laws enacted in several states, such as those attempted recently in Texas, have not met this standard.

But even with an expansion of the electorate, our polarization troubles are likely to remain. Primary elections (also addressed by Mann and Ornstein) have led to the defeat of several politically moderate candidates in place of more politically radical ones this election season: Senator Olympia Snowe is retiring due to partisanship, Sens. Bob Bennett and Richard Lugar both lost. As the conservative Democrat has become extinct (recall Senator Fritz Hollings), the liberal Republican is endangered. The primary process is endangering liberal Republicans for a reason: The most liberal and most conservative party members are generally those who most frequently and reliably vote in primary elections. And in many states, due to closed primaries, these individuals are the only ones who are allowed to vote in their respective primaries.

One of the most critical ways to decrease polarization is to open all the primaries in every state, to hold open primaries or at the very least, hold semi-closed primaries that would simply let independents also vote in both parties' primaries. I understand the importance and value of political parties, but the parties should not come at the cost of bipartisanship and success.

In actuality, the state-by-state proposal is unlikely to happen because the two parties are too strong to allow it. And those in government (those who are partisan elected officials) would fear the change.

So if we really want change, the middle (and this means Democrats, Republicans and Independents together) needs to be heard. But lately the middle cannot be heard over the polarized extremes.

 

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