In the days leading up to the 2018 California Primary Election, media outlets became obsessed with the unique “jungle primary” format in regards to determining whether Democrats could successfully pick up enough seats to retake the House of Representatives. After doing a little research, I am convinced that moving to a jungle primary would go a long way towards fixing many systemic institutional problems in Pennsylvania state government.
So What Exactly is a Jungle Primary?
The most straightforward definition of a jungle primary, technically referred to as a nonpartisan blanket primary, is a primary election open to all voters, but instead of picking a nominee from each of the two major parties, the two candidates with the highest vote totals win. The result is the real possibility (and in some districts the likelihood) of two candidates from the same party running against one another in the general election.
Sounds somewhat crazy, right? Sure, but it would also be the best thing to happen to Pennsylvania politics in a very, very long time. Here are eleven reasons why:
1. A Perfect Fit for Pennsylvania’s Weird‐Ass Political Geography
We all know the old joke: Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in the middle, right? Politically speaking, there is no denying the severe dichotomy between the urban and rural portions of the state. In a large percentage of Pennsylvania’s 203 legislative districts, the population is so overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican that nobody even bothers to run on the minority party ticket. A jungle primary changes all of that and gives voters a real choice in November.
2. All Districts Are Instantly Competitive
Right now we label legislative districts as either red or blue because if there is a competitive race in the general election, it’s between the Republican and the Democrat. Under a jungle primary system, we would really need to switch to four colors‐ dark red, light red, light blue, and dark blue.
If a district is 70 percent Republican registration, having two Republicans on the ballot in the general election isn’t quite so crazy, especially if the match‐up is between two candidates at opposite ends of the spectrum of the same party. All 203 districts should have competitive races more often than not.
3. More Representative Representation
This is a huge problem in Pennsylvania, especially since the state legislative districts are still severely gerrymandered (the Supreme Court only struck down Congressional district lines). Let’s say you have that 70 percent Republican district that all but assures a Republican victory in the general election. Right away, nobody cares about the Democratic voters because they’re out of the process; since the election is really the primary, all that matters are the Republican voters. Let’s say that 52 percent of the Republicans support hard‐right Tea Party candidates, and let’s say voter turnout is 25 percent for the primary.
In the scenario I just laid out, you only need to get 6,000 of the district’s 65,000 residents to show up and vote for you to get the Republican nomination in the primary. And since there is no real general election opponent, you win the general election basically by default, even though you only managed to get less than 10 percent of your constituents to vote for you.
In a jungle primary, the top two vote‐getters in a primary would now probably be the Tea Party candidate and a more traditional Republican. Now the Tea Party candidate will be forced to appeal to the entire electorate, including the 30 percent of registered Democrats who previously had no say in the matter, to win.
4. No More Assholes Like Daryl Metcalfe
State Representative Daryl Metcalfe is the living embodiment of the previous point. He’s far too extreme for his district, or any district that doesn’t include Germany in the late 1930’s really, but it’s a tough climb for a Democrat to win the 12th House District. But if a moderate Republican ran against Metcalfe in a jungle primary, that built‐in advantage is gone, which means racist, homophobic, xenophobic assholes like Daryl Metcalfe likely no longer exist in the State Capitol.
5. Voters Get More Time to Vet Candidates
Primaries are traditionally a rushed clusterfuck in Pennsylvania. Candidates only have a few short months to gather signatures to get on the ballot and put together a campaign team, and (hopefully) raise some money. The system massively benefits incumbents from top to bottom, but in a jungle primary, candidates from the same party would have much more time to introduce themselves to voters before the general election.
6. Dilutes the Concentration of Money and Resources
In a contested election in a swing district, where either the Democrat or Republican could conceivably win, money pours into the coffers of each side in ungodly amounts. The massive investment isn’t about the candidate or the voters in the district, but whether or not one party can flip the seat, thus giving their party a more substantial majority in Harrisburg.
One of the reasons these contested elections get flooded is because there just are not that many of them. With all of the solid blue and solid red seats effectively decided in the primaries, the political parties and special interest groups can zero in on a handful of battleground districts and annoy the living daylights out of voters with armies of door‐knocking canvassers, blast emails, robocalls, and now even text messages.
The sad part is the current system rewards legislators who lay low and don’t make waves to avoid being placed in the crosshairs. Unfortunately, sometimes a politician has to make waves to represent his or her district adequately, and you can imagine how often lawmakers choose to stay silent for their self‐preservation.
7. Severely Curtailed Incumbent Complacency
One of the reasons that the legislative caucuses are run like fiefdoms is that too many legislators are far too comfortably entrenched in the State Capitol, especially ones in heavily partisan districts where there is no real possibility of losing to the other party. By allowing two candidates from the same party to run in the general election, incumbents would be forced to pay more attention to local politics and spend less time trying to play kingmaker.
8. Maybe Something Will Actually Get Fucking Accomplished?
At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of legislative bodies to like, do shit. Pennsylvania is so incredibly dysfunctional, passing a state budget is now considered the political equivalent of putting a man on the moon.
It’s simple. A jungle primary rewards moderation and reason over extremist political grandstanding, which in turn enables rational discussion, which theoretically yields results. It also helps eliminate over‐the‐top clowns like Daryl Metcalfe who render the entire legislative body incapable of accomplishing the most simple of tasks for the good of the people. Even if rational, reasonable people replaced just a handful of these extremists, the level of productivity would be noticeably higher.
9. Good Luck Gerrymandering Your Way Out of This One
A jungle primary makes partisan gerrymandering much more difficult than it is under our current closed primary system. Gerrymandering is a binary process that assumes voters only have two choices: Democrat or Republican. But in an open primary system, there are many more variables to consider; a seat may stay red or blue, but the shade of red or blue will matter, which is hard to control via gerrymandering.
10. Local Coalition Building Would Become Kind of a Big Deal
Today, community leaders and local elected officials within a legislative district are often shut out of the process when they are not a member of the same political party as the legislator. But in a jungle primary system, those previously disenfranchised people become critically important as they can swing a general election one way or another. So instead of shutting out the local opposition, candidates would be forced to work together with everyone, which would hopefully increase communication, and maybe, just maybe, even build respect and trust.
11. Big Royalties for Guns N Roses
Like most of you, I wake up every day concerned about the financial well‐being of “the most dangerous band in America,” especially since the lukewarm performance of Chinese Democracy back in 2008. Anyhow, more jungle primaries equal more replays of “Welcome to the Jungle,” which equals more royalties for Guns N Roses. Even if we can’t agree on politics, we can all agree on keeping Slash financially solvent, right?
Sound Good? Here’s Why a Jungle Primary Will Never Happen in Pennsylvania
So now that I’ve convinced you that a jungle primary system would be great for Pennsylvania, allow me to extinguish any lingering talk about why it will never happen.
Regardless of political party, legislative leaders would never, ever be comfortable with giving up the iron grip they have as part of the current closed primary system. A jungle primary would make legislative districts more politically independent and less like pawns on a statewide chess board.
The only way to implement a jungle primary would be to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution. This process requires the Legislature to pass (by a two‐thirds majority) either a specific ballot question or enabling legislation for a Constitutional Convention in consecutive sessions. The bottom line is it would take at least four years and considerable political pressure to put the amendment to a ballot initiative.
So… only the Legislature can legally do anything about changing the Legislature?
Maybe we’ve been in the jungle the whole time after all.