Washington’s New Election System Underway

Last year, Washington state passed an old-school election system where, instead of candidates from state parties holding primaries and then a run-off for election, the top two candidates who win the most votes regardless of party move on to the general election. This new system is coming into play now, with Washington primary season underway.

For those of us who work in the public opinion business, Washington state is known as an incredibly irritating state to poll in because its wacky registration system (or lack thereof) means that people don’t put down a party affiliation on paper. As such, pollsters have to rewrite all of their questions to ask people with which party they identify, rather than already having down their party affiliation from voter files. But I digress. What’s neat about this system is the anti-polarizing effect it could have on elections.

Consider District L, a district made up of a huge number of liberal Democrats, and minorities of moderate Democrats, centrists, moderate Republicans, and conservative Republicans. This number is sufficiently overwhelming that L is almost always represented by a liberal Democrat – she’s favored by all the liberals and virtually all of the moderate Democrats, especially over the winner of the Republican primary. In median voter theorem terms, we can map this electoral space as limited on the positive side of planet NOMINATE, but fully extended on the left. Then, any election with a liberal Democrat, a centrist Democrat and a Republican would look like this:

With an open primary the guy in the middle can’t win his party’s nomination, and the Republican is screwed from the outset. But if only one nominee from each party advances to the general election, we can see the Republican’s final defeat from a mile away. Even the liberal Democrat gets all of the Democrats, and that’s the end of the horse race.

But now suppose the next most popular candidate by vote share, the centrist Democrat, stays in the game. Now, that same election completely changes candidates:

Now the winning candidate has the national NOMINATE score of -.25, instead of -.5! In one election, we’ve halved the amount of comparative national-level polarization in district representation. If median voter theory can tell us anything, it’s that these elections will be good for districts that value centrism, and that have lopsided party leanings.

And yes, real political scientists do too use MS Paint!


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