Last April, partisanship reached new extremes in the Montana Legislature. Democratic lawmakers, shouting and pounding their desks, drowned out the Republican majority's attempts to read Senate Bill 408. Gov. Steve Bullock, D, called the partisan warfare "worse than Washington, D.C."
The bill, which passed on a party-line vote, proposed a referendum for this November that will let Montanans choose to replace party-based primaries with a top-two system. Rather than advancing the Republican, Democratic and third-party primary winners to general elections, top-two systems require all candidates to face-off in a single primary. The two most popular advance, regardless of party.
Washington state implemented the system in 2008, and California in 2012. Advocates say the old system favors extremists and contributes to polarization. Political observers disagree on whether the reforms have helped. But one result is undeniable: Top-two has banished minor parties, like Libertarians and Greens, from general election ballots. "They're screwed," says Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political scientist. That prospect seems to be exactly what's motivating Montana Republicans, who blame Libertarian spoilers for their recent narrow losses to Democrats.
Many politicos see traditional primaries, which generally allow only registered Democrats or Republicans to vote, as partly to blame for congressional dysfunction. Both parties have painstakingly redrawn legislative districts to make them safe bets. Primaries in some of these reliably red or blue districts have become more decisive than general elections, forcing candidates to court the voters that turn out for them – often the parties' most right- or left-wing members.
This puts centrists at a disadvantage. Many "establishment" House Republicans, for instance, took a back seat to their Tea Party colleagues in last year's government shutdown, fearing that any compromise with Democrats would provoke primary challenges from conservative ideologues. The resulting crises have prompted more calls for primary reform, and even rebellion among conservative allies dissatisfied with the gridlock. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is throwing its weight behind old-guard Republicans like Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, who is facing a Tea Party primary opponent. A pro-business political group is doing the same in Montana.