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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Give thanks for top-two primary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: July 10, 2022, 6:02am

With the Washington primary drawing near, it is time to give thanks.

Oh, not just for a representative democracy that allows the people to elect their government. Or for mail-in ballots that make voting easy for all — and makes it harder for politicians to suppress the vote under specious reasoning. Or for local election officials who believe in the rule of law rather than the rule of fatuous conspiracy theories.

Those things are important, indeed. But today we are thankful for Washington’s top-two primary system. We are thankful for a primary election that slightly mitigates the absurd partisanship of modern politics, and for the small role it plays drawing our politicians toward the center.

Of course, the argument can be made that being in the political center is akin to lukewarm water. And that lukewarm water can’t boil spaghetti or ease the pain of a skin burn — and therefore is useless.

But in an age when both parties are engaged in fights for their soul between moderate factions and radical factions, sometimes lukewarm can be comforting.

The alternative, as we have seen, can devolve into an attempt to overthrow the government. It also can devolve into candidates pandering to the worst aspects of their party’s base to drum up support in partisan primaries.

A Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, for example, produced an ad showing him with a squad of heavily armed men in tactical gear, breaking down a door and throwing flash grenades with the intent of killing “Republicans in name only.” “Get a RINO-hunting permit,” says the candidate, who resigned as governor in 2018 amid allegations of sexual assault and campaign finance impropriety. “There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

Which would be shocking if we did not long ago give up hope of reaching the bottom in our political discourse. As an article from Politico explains: “Many want to know which madness emanating from the other party their senator or congressman will stop.” It then quotes a Republican strategist in North Carolina: “Both sides want fighters. That’s true for Democrats, that’s true for Republicans. They want people who are going to stop the bad stuff as much as pass new legislation.”

That probably makes sense in an age when Pew Research polls find that political antipathy is “more intense, more personal,” but it doesn’t say much for the electorate. Then again, Winston Churchill reputedly said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Which brings us to Washington’s top-two primary, a system that was installed in 2008 after much political wrangling and legal fighting. Voters don’t register by party, and they may vote for members of either party in the primary. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

You knew that; but it bears repeating when the typical voter is ever more entrenched in party affiliation and the tribal mentality that comes with it.

So, while candidates in other states are catering to the worst of their party’s proclivities in order to win a partisan primary, candidates here must at least give lip-service to some sense of moderation. Whether they are sincere is up to voters, but it’s better than having those candidates publicly embrace extremism.

It also leads to better leadership. It is no coincidence that Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse from Washington were among only 10 House Republicans to vote in favor of Donald Trump’s second impeachment. The top-two primary system reduced the chance of them being primaried from the right, allowing them to defend the United States instead of defending Trump’s incitement of violence and instead of pandering to extremists in their party.

Voting for somebody to “stop” the other party instead of getting things done threatens to be the death of our democracy. But a top-two primary just might help breathe a little life into it.