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Top 2 primary system will improve government

by By Marc Racicot and Bob Brown
| March 5, 2022 12:00 AM

We became acquainted over half a century ago and have always shared a keen interest in government and public service. In our lifetimes of serving in public office, and being close observers of the political process, we have never so regularly heard deep expressions of concern from our fellow citizens about the declining state of our political system.

Believing that individual freedom is fundamental to our system of “government of, by and for the people,” we are proposing here an idea to expand freedom within our system that will also improve the function of government by making it more responsive to the needs of the people it was created to serve.

We are proposing free and open primary elections, typically referred to as a Top 2 Primary. In Montana’s current system, even though primary election voters are permitted to vote one party ballot or another, they are not allowed to vote for any candidate regardless of party on the primary ballot. That is because the current design of primary elections forces voters to separately select party loyalists for the single purpose of beating the loyalists of the other party in the general election. Primary elections are currently designed strictly to serve the interests of political parties. They are purely about political power. They are not about representing the majority of people voting in a primary election.

Open Top 2 primaries, on the other hand, would allow primary election voters the freedom to choose from among all the candidates, and it would incentivize primary election candidates to offer solutions to real public problems, rather than narrowly targeting party loyalists. The result would be that the field of primary election candidates would be reduced down to the top two finishers regardless of party. Those two candidates would then move on to the general election for the people to make a final selection by a majority vote.

A long debate could ensue over whether Montana’s Democrats or Republicans would be benefited by open primary elections. But beyond narrow political considerations, such primaries would clearly create a new dynamic in which problem-solvers could triumph over ideologues of any political party.

Americans across the country are deeply weary of government that is more focused on seeking political power for its own sake rather than on providing the majority of electors the opportunity to vote for those candidates they believe are most qualified by reason of character, capacity and commitment to the preservation and restoration of our democracy. A deep national yearning for more effective, solution-oriented government may be why several states have recently adopted open primary elections, and several more have them under consideration.

Those who now owe their political allegiance to the closed system may likely oppose this proposal to return political authority to the people. But this is a reform that should be embraced by open-minded candidates of either political party as they now begin their campaigns in this election year. It is an idea that elevates the free exercise of discretion to the voters rather than deference to political parties. Candidates can still run with a party label if that’s their preference, but with a Top 2 primary system voters can vote for any candidate on the primary ballot regardless of party. Clearly, it’s “outside the box” of what we’ve grown used to, but it’s also a step in the direction of recognizing that the ultimate authority provided for and reserved in our federal and state constitutions rests within the disposition of the people and not the exclusionary practices of political parties.

Marc Racicot is a former Republican Montana Governor. Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana Secretary of State.

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