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We've sized up the problem well enough, not that it's hard to do.

Our political parties are steadily held more hostage by their bases, also known as their respective extremes, left and right. Government, in turn, is rendered ever more dysfunctional by personal and political alienation.

But as a man asked the other day: Do we have any solutions, or are we powerless beyond whining?

What follows are not solutions. One is a potential procedural advancement. The others are ideas worth pondering.

The potential procedural advancement is a bill introduced without action years ago by a former Democratic congressman from Michigan, Dale Kildee.

It would provide that, in the event of a vital spending measure not being passed, the government would remain open under spending that would continue automatically at the existing level until a new measure is enacted. There could be no shutdown.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at a lunch Friday with columnists, brought up the old measure by Kildee, retired since 2013, and said she'd like to see it considered anew.

It's not always Donald Trump who forces a shutdown because he doesn't get his way. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer did it the year before, albeit only for a few hours, having realized his folly weeks more quickly than Trump grudgingly admitted his.

Even now, Trump invokes a possible shutdown on Feb. 15. For that matter, the imperative to raise the debt ceiling will arise again in a few weeks or months, depending on how long the Treasury Department can move money around.

The point is that federal employees shouldn't pay a price, and airline customers shouldn't be less safe, because the alienated politicians can't achieve adulthood.

I'm not at all sure whether any politician would want at this juncture to vote against preventing shutdowns. The time seems ripe. Pelosi should move while she's atop the world.

The ideas worthy of pondering have to do with how we elect our politicians or nominate them in party primaries.

They are designed to make the choices less zero-sum, whether between the good and horrible, or the acceptable and the horrible, or the lesser and the evil.

It is to reward candidates who might be second choices in multiple-candidate fields over those who would be the top choice for some but low choices for many--like, oh, Donald Trump.

The idea is to elevate general appeal over polarized appeal.

Just last November, Maine seated its first congressman from the "RCV" system, meaning "ranked-choice voting."

In a multiple-candidate field, it works this way: Voters don't merely vote for one candidate. They rank the candidates by their preference.

Then, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent, the last-place candidate is thrown out and his voters' second choices become first-place votes. And then the same goes for the next-to-last, and so on, until two candidates are left standing and one has more than 50 percent.

It takes a while to do the tallies, but the score is announced along the way. And in the end, the premium will be on--and victory ought to go to--a candidate getting a lot of second-rankings instead of one getting a lot of last-place rankings.

Some people call it an "instant runoff," and I'm not sure it would change a lot of outcomes.

Let's take the Arkansas Republican presidential primary of 2016. Trump got 32.8 percent; Ted Cruz 30.5; Marco Rubio 24.9; Ben Carson 5.7; John Kasich 3.7 and Mike Huckabee, an inactive candidate, 1.2.

Huckabee voters probably would have split their second-choices; Kasich's would likely have gone secondarily to Rubio; Carson voters probably to Trump, and Rubio's to ... well, some for Cruz and some for Trump and a quotient to Kasich.

The Arkansas Republican presidential primary probably is a bad example. Arkansas GOP voters faced two candidates, Trump and Cruz, who led the pack but also were equally worthy of being ranked last. They were loved-hated about equally, probably.

What, then, about the recent Little Rock mayor's race? In the first go-round, Frank Scott had 37 percent; Baker Kurrus 29; Warwick Sabin 28, and two other candidates got 3 percent each.

Ranked voting would have been fascinating, to see whether Sabin or Kurrus got more second-place votes, mostly to each other, and whether Scott would have dropped with third-place votes. I'm not saying that would have been the case. I'm happy with the way the race turned out. It's just that I'm agitated with moot wonder.

The other idea is a free-for-all primary with all candidates of both parties thrown together in a single primary election with the two top finishers proceeding to the general election.

Supposedly, incumbents would become less fearful of offending their extreme bases since their primaries would not be closed affairs dominated by those bases. Instead they'd be all-comer affairs with some premium on the mainstream and moderation.

But, in California last year, the free-for-all primary produced an anti-competitive all-Democratic U.S. Senate contest in the general election.

And it all became very strategic, with people talking about voting for a candidate for no reason other than to try to keep another out of the general election.

So, while what we're doing is not working so well, doing something different for the sake of doing something different is no panacea.

The ranked voting intrigues. I place it somewhere north of interesting, but still well south of promising.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 01/30/2019

Print Headline: BRUMMETT ONLINE: Ponderable potentialities


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  • RBear
    January 30, 2019 at 5:57 a.m.

    Agree with both proposals, John. I've always advocated a move away from the current party primary system which sometimes leaves us with a less than desirable candidate in a majority party who people blindly vote for because they have a D or an R behind their name. I was strongly opposed to Texas' straight ticket voting system which amplified that concept in the general election. It was supported by the party organizations who were more about numbers than anything else. They didn't really care if a dog candidate from their party was elected as long as they got to count another win in their column.
    I've often preferred the "Top Two" primary system, but your POV makes me want to go back and revisit it against ranked voting. The bottom line is that voters need to think about the candidates instead of just going in and blindly voting. Many in here are guilty of that obsession which is quite disturbing looking at our current political environment. We have the means to accomplish more intelligent voting. We just need to push our policy makers to take action on them.
    With regards to government funding, that should be a bill pushed by both parties as our federal government and employees should never be held hostage over disagreements. When mom and dad fight, the kids shouldn't suffer. Hopefully, the bill will gain some traction after this past shutdown and definitely will get a boost if Trump pulls another lame move of shutting the government down again over his petty wall.

  • Waitjustaminute
    January 30, 2019 at 6:28 a.m.

    I have a better idea for avoiding shutdowns: pass a proposal that automatically suspends the pay of all elected officials, and their staffs, in the event of one. I'm not in favor of continuing spending in violation of the debt ceiling, which is already too weak a barrier to our runaway spending.
    As for the ranked choice voting, there's just too much room for even more mischief with that system. It would provide an incentive for candidates to not only try to win votes for themselves, but also to drive up the negatives of their most feared opponent to manipulate who gets ranked second or third. If you think politics is dirty now, see what happens if we go that route. It ranks right up with 'vote harvesting' as an idea that sounds good in principle but turns out to be bad in practice. We need to make our political choices on a 'head to head' basis.

  • RBear
    January 30, 2019 at 6:44 a.m.

    WJAM then you would prefer Top Two. Party primaries are not working and I can give countless examples of why that's the case.

  • Waitjustaminute
    January 30, 2019 at 7:13 a.m.

    RBear, I'm not sure I prefer that either. I know the current system has its faults, but Top Two does nothing to break up one-party domination of a state. If Arkansas voters only have a choice between Republican A or Republican B, or if California only has a choice between two Democrats, I'm not convinced that's an improvement.

  • PopMom
    January 30, 2019 at 7:20 a.m.

    I am a big fan of ranked voting in the general election. It would allow a moderate or independent to run up the middle and win. As it is, voters may be given a stark choice between fascists and socialists.

  • RBear
    January 30, 2019 at 7:36 a.m.

    WJAM what it does do is remove the hard line bias of the primary by allowing Democrats to vote for a moderate Republican over a hard conservative Republican who would have won in a primary. It removes the shackles of being bound by my primary. You vote for the best candidate of a field.

  • Waitjustaminute
    January 30, 2019 at 7:42 a.m.

    RBear, if it would indeed work that way in practice, then I'd be all in favor of it. I agree with Brummett that both parties are becoming captive to the most extreme elements within them.

  • Rightside
    January 30, 2019 at 7:57 a.m.

    I flew 4 times during shutdown felt safe, looked like they had more than needed working lines..

    And the shutdown was so bad that companies added 213,000 jobs in January according to data released Wednesday by ADP and Moody's Analytics. Economists polled by Refinitiv expected payrolls to grow by 178,000. The strong jobs growth comes even as the U.S. government was shut down for 35 days.

  • lohr52
    January 30, 2019 at 8:03 a.m.

    The third paragraph from bottom tells the problem, The Heisman Trophy balloting uses this system. Some years back, an area of the country openly campaigned to leave off Peyton Manning. No one doubted he would have received many votes in the top three if not for the campaign. It was , as JB said, a strategic move. It worked. I know that is merely a sports trophy but the process is the same.
    Like a lot of ideas, it works very good in theory but not so good in practice.

  • GeneralMac
    January 30, 2019 at 9:04 a.m.

    Sour grapes, John Brummett .

    Since your girl Hillary lost, let's change the system ?