It’s time to change some of the systems that perpetuate political polarization

Polarization in politics, and resulting hostility, is something we see daily, whether on social media, news media, the way political campaigns message, or directly from our elected leaders. We must do better to address this.

The Legislature’s processes are very partisan and have been for many decades. Only members of the Republican or Democratic caucuses are assigned committees, communications staff, and several other opportunities to engage in the legislative process.

The capitol building itself was constructed in the 1920s with a two-party system in mind – two distinct sides to the House and Senate chambers, two caucus rooms opposite each other, staff and legislative office spaces separated from each other based on party.

Prior to voting on bills, both in committee and in the House and Senate chambers, legislators convene separately – Democrats in one room, and Republicans in another, to hear staff brief bills and amendments. The effect is both sides hearing from like-minded colleagues and losing the opportunity to understand and discuss differing viewpoints. Presumably, this leads to votes that are more partisan in nature.

I’ve always tried to build better relationships across the aisle to understand my Democratic colleagues’ experiences and viewpoints. Still, the Legislature shouldn’t be a place that creates numerous unnecessary and systemic barriers to bipartisan collaboration.

Fortunately, political ideology isn’t as simple as the binary choice our current system pushes us to believe. It’s more complex, with individuals holding a variety of viewpoints that don’t all “fit” within one of the two major party platforms.

I believe it’s time to talk about changing some of the systems that perpetuate political polarization. One of those is party identification on our ballots.

Not only are those labels the basis for the institutionalized partisanship in the legislative process outlined above, but they also create several false assumptions about and expectations of political candidates.

First, a partisan label on the ballot doesn’t mean a political party supports a candidate. In Washington, the candidate alone chooses their party preference for the ballot. Parties aren’t able to control how candidates use party names on the ballot. This creates an appearance of a closer relationship between the candidate and party than may exist.

Second, national media and political events create a perception of what a Republican or Democrat is, which often doesn’t reflect regional or local differences with the national parties. It also creates an assumption that a candidate for partisan office must believe certain things if they are aligned with a party identification, which is often not true either.

Lastly, party labels on ballots enable many voters to vote “party line” based on preconceptions about what the candidate’s values should be based on their party label, without putting in the effort to learn the candidate’s values. The result disappoints when the candidate’s voting record doesn’t align with the voter’s partisan preconception.

Because of the reasons I just mentioned, I have introduced House Bill 1826 to remove party labels from our ballots. Ultimately, elections are about electing individual people, not parties, to make decisions on our behalf. This should be based on the person’s actual values and qualifications.

Editor’s Note: Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, represents the 16th Legislative District

Op-ed as published in the Prosser Record-Bulletin

State Representative Skyler Rude, 16th Legislative District
122G Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7828 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000