Opinion Columns & Blogs

August 3, 2014

Michael A. Smith: Primary elections have big impact

Call it the one-third of 1 percent revolution.

Call it the one-third of 1 percent revolution.

It took 8,081 votes for Gov. Sam Brownback’s allies to gain effective control of the Kansas Senate and, therefore, the entire state government in the 2012 Republican primary election. Before, a tenuous moderate Republican-Democrat alliance was staving off some of Brownback’s sweeping proposals.

Brownback’s allies targeted moderate Republican incumbents, defeating eight: Pete Brungardt of Salina, Bob Marshall of Fort Scott, Tim Owens of Overland Park, Roger Reitz of Manhattan, Jean Schodorf of Wichita, Ruth Teichman of Stafford, Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer and then-Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton.

Primaries have notoriously low voter turnout: Busy voters may be unaware that there is an election before November. It may get worse because of Kansas’ recently toughened “closed primary,” allowing participation only by voters registered in that party. Championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the new laws complicating voting and registration also spell trouble. These districts being heavily Republican, the primary winner would later run unopposed or face a hopelessly outclassed Democratic opponent. The combined margin by which these eight moderates were defeated was 8,081 votes: 0.32 percent of Kansas’ adult population.

Massive, sweeping changes should require careful scrutiny and a broad, public debate. The lives of more than 2 million people are being transformed, but hardly any of them voted for the changes.

Instead, Kansans could heed California’s example. Long plagued by uncompetitive in-district elections, the Golden State is heavily Democratic on its coasts and Republican inland. A few years ago, voters approved the state’s new “top two” primary, replacing an earlier system declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. California voters do not register as members of political parties. All primary voters receive one ballot listing the candidates of all parties seeking each seat, with party labels next to the names. More than one candidate can list the same party. Each primary voter chooses one candidate per race, and the top two vote-getters for each seat advance to the general election, even if both are from the same party. Thus a heavily Democratic or heavily Republican district can still have a real, robust competition in November, when voter turnout is much higher.

In Kansas, across-the-board decisions are being forced through with minimal public input. Smart political consultants have figured out how to game the system. It is time to reconsider.

In the meantime, don’t forget to vote in the primary elections Tuesday. If only one-third of 1 percent can make a difference, you might as well be one of them.

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