Talking Points

A solution to America's electoral problems? Be more like Alaska.

In a lengthy new essay at The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an extensive, social media-focused explanation of "why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid." He also offers a handful of reforms, one of which — in the category of "harden[ing] democratic institutions — caught my eye as the rare idea for change in our electoral system that could actually be popular and possible.

"Reforms should reduce the outsize influence of angry extremists and make legislators more responsive to the average voter in their district," Haidt contends:

One example of such a reform is to end closed party primaries, replacing them with a single, nonpartisan, open primary from which the top several candidates advance to a general election that also uses ranked-choice voting. A version of this voting system has already been implemented in Alaska, and it seems to have given Sen. Lisa Murkowski more latitude to oppose former President [Donald] Trump, whose favored candidate would be a threat to Murkowski in a closed Republican primary but is not in an open one. [Jonathan Haidt at The Atlantic]

Alaska's open primaries differ from the more common form seen in states like Virginia, where voters don't need to be registered with a political party to vote in its primary. In Alaska, all candidates (for select offices) compete in one primary, and the top four (from any combination of parties) move on to the general.

What makes this idea so intriguing is that it isn't fantasy.

Many other electoral reform proposals are just that. Absent enormous structural change, the major parties will never split up and third parties will never stand a chance in most federal and state-wide races. And enormous structural change is almost completely impossible because it would require a constitutional amendment or convention to enact, and the very polarization and mutual suspicion that make us want enormous structural change also make us dislike and distrust each other too much to take a risk on fundamentally altering our Constitution. Better to stick with the devil you know.

But what Haidt suggests here doesn't need those processes or incur that risk. Any state could take his advice right now, likely with quite broad support. Those wary of angry extremists could back the reform for the very reason Haidt supplies: In practice, it seems to encourage moderation. But, crucially, angry extremists themselves could back it too, seeing an open primary as a lower barrier to viable candidacy and thus perhaps channeling their frustrations into normal, nonviolent political activity.

It's doable, and it's at least worth a try.