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SPOTLIGHT
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One third of 1 percent makes difference

Published on -8/3/2014, 11:42 AM

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(Throughout American history,) states in which leaders required support from a larger proportion of the population developed faster. Such states build more extensive canal, rail and road networks. They also achieved higher educational attainment and were more attractive places for other Americans to migrate into.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alestair Smith, "The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics"

Call it the one-third of 1 percent revolution.

It took 8,081 votes for Gov. Sam Brownback's allies to gain effective control of the Kansas Senate, and therefore the entire state government, in the 2012 Republican primary election. Before, a tenuous moderate Republican-Democrat alliance was staving off Brownback's proposals for sweeping tax cuts and other legislation. Now passed, those tax cuts eventually will eliminate approximately one-third of the entire state "general fund" budget, including tens of millions of dollars going to schools and human services.

Brownback's allies targeted moderate Republican incumbents, defeating eight: Pete Brungardt of Salina, Bob Marshall of Fort Scott, Tim Owens of Overland Park, Roger Reitz of Manhattan, Jean Schodorf of Wichita, Ruth Teichman of Stafford, Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer, and then-majority leader Steve Morris of Hugoton.

Primaries have notoriously low voter turnout: Busy voters might be unaware there is an election before November. It might get worse due to Kansas' recently toughened "closed primary," allowing primary participation only by voters registered in that party. Championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the new laws complicating voting and registration also spell trouble.

These districts being heavily Republican, the primary winner later would run unopposed or face a hopelessly outclassed Democratic opponent. The combined margin by which these eight moderates were defeated was 8,081 votes: 0.32 percent of Kansas' adult population.

Massive, sweeping changes should require careful scrutiny and a broad, public debate. The lives of more than 2 million people are being transformed, but hardly any of them voted for the changes. Instead, Kansans could heed California's example. Long plagued by uncompetitive in-district elections, the Golden State heavily is Democratic on its coasts and Republican inland. A few years ago, voters approved the state's new "top two" primary, replacing an earlier system which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. California voters do not register as members of political parties. All primary voters receive one ballot listing the candidates of all parties seeking each seat, with party labels next to the names. More than one candidate can list the same party. Each primary voter chooses one candidate per race, and the top two vote-getters for each seat advance to the general election, even if both are from the same party.

Thus a heavily Democratic or heavily Republican district still can have a real, robust competition in November when voter turnout is much higher.

In Kansas, across-the-board decisions are being forced through with minimal public input. Smart political consultants have figured out how to game the system. It is time to reconsider.

In the meantime, don't forget to vote in the primary elections Tuesday. If only one third of 1 percent can make a difference, you had might as well be one of them.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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