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Partisan primaries are a problem

by Kal Munis and David C.W. Parker
| April 23, 2023 12:00 AM

Two autumns ago, we wrote a report and op-ed documenting the state of representation and democracy in Montana. To no Montanan’s surprise, we found our beloved Treasure State to be in poor political health, suffering in recent years from ever higher rates of uncontested elections, partisan vitriol, and ideological extremism. One of the key contributing factors to these political maladies is the partisan primary system our state currently uses to determine which candidates appear on the general election ballot each fall. When we heard tell of a bill in this year’s legislature seeking to replace partisan primaries, we were initially excited and hopeful. However, a closer inspection of the bill reveals that it’s nothing more than partisan mischief masquerading as reform.

Senate Bill 566, a bill sponsored by Senator Greg Hertz (R-Polson), would abolish the partisan primary and replace it with what’s known as a “Top Two” jungle primary for one race, and one race only: the 2024 U.S. Senate race in Montana. In a Top Two primary, all declared candidates from all parties run on the same ballot and the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes (i.e., the top two), regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

Theoretically, there are advantages of a Top Two system. In districts dominated by a single party, it gives all voters, not just those voting in the dominant party’s primary, a say in who represents them. Top Two primaries also guarantee that whoever wins the November general election will have received a majority of the vote. Finally, Top Two primaries are also more likely to produce non-ideologically extreme candidates and less divisive campaigning. These benefits would likely restore some of the faith and pride in our political system that many of us have lost. For these reasons, we concluded in our report that a Top Two primary might be preferable to Montana’s current partisan primary system, if applied to all levels of elections like state legislative races.

But we can’t support Sen. Hertz’s bill. Why? Because this particular bill isn’t real primary reform. It’s a targeted effort to alter the election of one race and one race only. That’s not reform. That’s political manipulation, and it certainly does nothing to help restore faith in our political systems and government. SB 566 would establish a Top Two primary for only one elected office in Montana: the U.S. Senate. What’s more it would apply to only one election cycle: 2024. Why? Because the bill is a targeted attempt to manipulate the outcome of one single election. Why else would Sen. Hertz make sure to exclude legislative elections like his own from the reform?

After a whirlwind of bad press and text messages leaked to The New York Times proved the cynical intent behind the bill, SB 566 was tabled in committee this week. A good result for Montanans tired of political ploys and shenanigans that only result in further undermining trust in elections and the political process. However, we hope these antics don’t distract from the need for real electoral reform. It’s clear that many from across the political spectrum see the need for primary reform. This bill started an important debate. And it’s our hope that the focus on this bill, both in-state and nationally over the last few weeks, highlights the potential for serious primary reform that would apply to all elections up and down the ballot, rather than a single race.

We reject the cynical manipulations and calculations that Senator Hertz’s SB 566 represents. But we still support the need for electoral reform broadly and would even support a good faith and universal adoption of the Top Two primary for all elected offices in Montana on a permanent basis. SB 566 ain’t it. But don’t let one flawed approach to electoral reform overshadow the benefits of primary reform. Most Montanans are sick and tired of the current system, and partisan primaries are a big part of the problem.

Kal Munis is an assistant professor of political science at Utah Valley University. David C.W. Parker is a professor of political science at Montana State University.