By LEO LINBECK III
The Primary Pledge Campaign, in which Americans commit to vote in congressional primaries, represents the single most promising effort by which we can restore accountability to Congress and to the federal government.
Today, voting in the general election is not enough. The electoral system has morphed to the point where the vast majority of congressional general elections are no longer relevant. Because more than 80 percent of congressional seats are in one-party districts — in Ohio, it’s about 83 percent — the decision is not made in the general election. It is made in the primary of the party that controls that district.
As a result, increasing voter turnout in general elections will do little or nothing to fix a broken system. Increased voter turnout in key primaries, however, can have a profound impact on Congress, putting an end to the lock too many incumbents in the House of Representatives have on their seats.
To understand the problem, we need to face this seemingly paradoxical fact: At a time when the approval rating of Congress was only 17 percent, 86 percent of House incumbents were re-elected. The accountability system for Congress is broken.
The powerful members of Congress are in “safe seats,” representing districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic. In 2010, the average margin of victory for incumbents in general elections was 26 percent. There is virtually no chance of a long-term incumbent losing a general election. Powerful members of Congress are only accountable to the party loyalists who show up and vote in primaries.
This important fact is worth restating: The decision is made in the primary. That is why the Alliance for Self-Governance is promoting the Primary Pledge. For democracy to work, the people have to vote when the decision is made.
Primaries are also usually uncompetitive. In 2010, 396 incumbents ran for re-election; only four lost. In all, 62 percent faced no primary challenge. And 2010 was not unique; from 2002 to 2008, only 12 incumbents lost their primary. Over that same period, 13 incumbents died in office. In other words, God recalls more incumbents than primary elections.
Ohio is not much better than the national statistics. In 2010, 18 incumbents ran for re-election – eight Republicans and ten Democrats – and all eighteen won their primaries. Six incumbents had no primary opponent, and none of the races were close; the average margin of victory was about 58 percent.
But the system can be fixed in the primaries. Only about 10 percent of the voting-age population bothers to vote in the dominant primaries. This low turnout represents an opportunity to effect real change. Because only about 30,000 to 50,000 voters bother to participate in the primaries in any given district, a few thousand votes can determine the outcome. In short, a vote in the primary has a far greater impact.
It is by participating in the dominant primaries in our respective districts that we can reassert control over a system hijacked by the special interests. By encouraging challengers to incumbents in the primaries, we can restore genuine competition to our elections and accountability to Congress.
The Primary Pledge Campaign, while simple and straightforward, is powerful. By signing the pledge, voters simply promise to vote in primaries. By doing so, they can make sure incumbents face real challenges, reminding them that they are answerable to the people, not to the Washington insiders, party leaders, lobbyists and special interests.
Of course, we will help. We will communicate with voters who generally have not voted in primaries. We will remind pledge signers how to register, when primary elections take place, where to vote. We will inform them, for example, of which states have “open” primaries or which allow “independent” voters to participate.
Through these efforts, the American people can regain control of the process. In this way, the Primary Pledge Campaign will promote the democratic principle that assures the accountability of Congress. It is only through holding our elected officials accountable that we can restore our system of self-governance.
Leo Linbeck III is president and CEO of Houston-based Aquinas Cos. LLC. and the co-chairman of the Alliance for Self-Governance. www.alliance4selfgovernance.org