The “primary” link between two seemingly different stories

Earlier this morning I blogged about the institutional structure that caused McCarthy and McConnell to cave in response to pressure from their Trump-supporting GOP base. Superficially, one might think that yesterday’s news about the federal court’s decision regarding Ohio’s redistricting mess might be unrelated. But I see a structural connection between the two, and it’s why the “primary problem” (involving partisan primary elections determining who’s on the plurality-winner general election ballot) is indeed the primary problem (meaning, number-one reform priority) threatening U.S. democracy right now.

Last night, I tweeted a thread why I’m dubious about yesterday’s federal court order as a matter of Article III jurisdiction to enforce applicable Fourteenth Amendment requirements, and the corresponding entitlement of the Ohio Supreme Court (insofar as its own jurisdiction permits) to enforce state constitutional law with respect to a primary election for a non-federal office (seats in the state legislature). I won’t repeat the points in that tweet thread here. Instead, I want to highlight the more significant point (in my judgment) that Ohio’s redistricting mess wouldn’t exist if Ohio used Alaska’s new electoral system, or some variation of it, to elect its statewide officers, like Governor or Secretary of State.

As an Ohioan, I’ve followed the careers of Governor Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. They are not Trump-type Republicans. Recall DeWine’s initial response to Covid, or how LaRose handled his role in administering elections pre-2020. But theirs are two of the key votes in the state’s redistricting process that has caused the mess the state is in. Why, I ask myself, would these two non-Trump Republicans be so recalcitrant in refusing to obey the Ohio Supreme Court’s repeated orders to draw a map in compliance with the state’s constitution (as interpreted by a majority of that court, including Republican Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor)? The only answer I can think of: the threat of being “primaried” from the Trumpian right. Both DeWine and LaRose are up for reelection, and they face Trumpian challenges in the May 3 GOP primary. While they are both likely to survive, they both face the institutional pressure from the existing electoral system to cater to the Trumpian base of the GOP. No point enraging the base, or the members of the state legislature’s GOP caucus (which is even more beholden to the base because of previous gerrymandering combined with the electoral system of primary elections followed by a plurality-winner general election). Thus, in being so recalcitrant on redistricting, DeWine and LaRose act in a way forced upon them by the institutional pressure they face but is contrary to what otherwise they’d be inclined to do.

Sound familiar? It’s the same dynamic at work in this morning’s story about McCarthy and McConnell needing to back off of their initial instinct regarding Trump after the January 6 insurrection. And it’s the same institutional culprit at work: partisan primaries followed by a plurality-winner general election. If Ohio had Alaska’s new system right now, DeWine and LaRose would be running for reelection in an entirely different institutional environment. I think there’s strong reason to believe their behavior in the redistricting process would be entirely different as well.

Gerrymandering is bad. We need to curtail it. But Ohio’s experience shows that to redress gerrymandering, like so much else that currently ails the U.S. electoral system right now, reform needs to reach the root of the problem. We need to tackle the pathological behavior of politicians in leadership positions (McCarthy, McConnell, DeWine, LaRose, and many others in D.C. and nationwide), behavior that is contrary to their own best instincts but caused by the “primary problem” itself.

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