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Editorial: Wanted: A primary system that pulls pols toward the middle

Who hates America’s political parties? More and more Americans, it seems.

Allegiance to Democrats or Republicans is shrinking fast. The number of no-party-affiliated voters in Florida has increased nearly five-fold since 1990. They’re now 27 percent of the electorate. That share is expected rise to 29 percent by the 2016 election and to 33 percent – a third of Florida voters! – by 2022.

The trend is fueled particularly by younger people, who increasingly register as independents. Last year, the state’s registration figures showed that an average of 55 percent of net voters (new registrants minus those removed from the system) were of neither major party.

And who can blame them, given the awfulness of partisan behavior these days, when the only thing on politicians’ minds, when not raising money for the next election cycle, is to score points against the other side? And heaven help the pol who reaches out for a compromise, lest he or she be “primaried” — challenged by a well-financed upstart who burns more ardently with ideological fervor.

The results were all too clear in the last session of the Legislature, with House Republicans so unwilling to compromise with Senate Republicans over expanding Medicaid that they folded their tents and went home early, leaving a pile of unfinished business, while Democrats, so heavily outnumbered as to be neutered, watched from the sidelines.

What voters deserve is a system that rewards politicians who speak not to the most extreme elements of their own parties, but who reach to the middle and forge coalitions with independents and the other party.

Such a proposal is in the works. It’s a “Top Two” primary system for Florida congressional, state legislative, governor’s and cabinet races. A ballot amendment called All Voters Vote is being prepared in time for the 2016 election, and, if passed, would go into effect in the 2018 election cycle.

There would be no more Democratic primary, no Republican primary. In their stead would be a single primary that candidates from any party — or none — could enter. The top two winners would go on to face each other in the general election. In state elections, a candidate with at least 50 percent of the vote would be declared the winner immediately.

Washington state and California have primaries like these, and the results have worked just as planned: more reasonable candidates are getting into office, according to Miami lawyer Gene Stearns, who is leading the effort.

The system seems jarring at first. It would be possible for two Republicans – or two Democrats – to win a primary’s top two spots, and therefore face each other in the general election.

Awkward? Perhaps for the parties. But the voters would benefit, because candidates will succeed by being less ideologically rigid and more appealing to people in the center. Candidates will have to talk, and listen, to all the voters, not just those in the partisan cocoon.

All Voters Vote is a bipartisan effort. Stearns, a Democrat who was campaign manager for former Gov. Reubin Askew, is joined by Jim Smith, a Republican and former Florida attorney general and secretary of state. Another prominent supporter is former Democratic state legislator and Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte. Stearns was a major supporter of Fair Districts, the 2010 amendments meant to remove partisanship from the creation of congressional and state legislative districts.

The Republican and Democratic parties are likely to oppose this. If the system is to change, it will be up to be the voters to force the change.

And voters should force this change. Yet another threat of a federal government shutdown this fall (this time, over Planned Parenthood and abortion) is the latest example of the dysfunctional government that our polarized politics has produced.

We need a politics that encourages more people to participate, not turn away disgusted in the droves we’re seeing now.

“If we are going to teach democracy to the world, we should try teaching it to ourselves,” Stearns told The Post Editorial Board.

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