WASHINGTON - The capital's shutdowns and showdowns have tested the patience even of the Senate chaplain. "Save us from the madness," he prayed at the opening of one session last week. But how, exactly?
The roots of the nation's polarized and sometimes paralyzed politics, decades in the making, are too complex and far-reaching to be easily reversed or resolved. Even so, some political scientists and politicians argue that making simple changes - expanding who can vote in primary elections, for instance, or rethinking how legislative districts are drawn - could make a difference in the kind of government that follows.
A nationwide USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center poll finds a majority of Americans support a range of proposals aimed at easing hyper-partisanship and building confidence in elections. Some command the sort of broad bipartisan backing rare in national politics.
Allow independents to vote in primaries? Yes. Require photo IDs to curb voter fraud? Definitely. Find an alternative to having legislatures draw congressional districts? Maybe. Vote over the Internet? Well, no.
Susan Deneen, 42, of Lynchburg, Va., would welcome changes that might address the political impasse. "I feel like our country is getting polarized, and it's becoming harder and harder to come to any agreement," the adjunct professor in sociology at Liberty University, who was called in the poll, said in a follow-up interview. "I don't feel like my voice is being heard."
The survey of 1,000 adults by Republican pollster Whit Ayres and Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, taken Sept. 19-23, has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
On Tuesday, USA TODAY and the Bipartisan Policy Center are sponsoring a national "town hall" at Ohio State University - the third in a series this year - with a panel of former governors, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and others to discuss the potential repercussions of electoral changes.
"I'm always a little skeptical when someone gives you the silver bullet," says Heather Gerken, a Yale Law School professor who studies election law. "But there are a lot of ways in which election laws shape politics and politics in turn shapes governance."
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, offers one example. If congressional districts had been drawn through less partisan processes after the 2010 Census, he says, "I don't think there'd be a government shutdown right now."
Incumbent lawmakers who benefit from the current system often are reluctant to change it, but California voters passed Proposition 11 in 2008, establishing an independent commission to draw state district lines, and expanded that in 2010 to include congressional districts with Prop 20. That same year, Florida voters amended the state constitution to require more sensible district lines though Ohio voters defeated a redistricting proposal last year.
The standoff in Washington could boost prospects for electoral changes, says Rob Richie, executive director of advocacy group FairVote.org. "Out of this crisis, we are inevitably going to have a conversation about fundamental reforms that aren't even on the table now," he predicts.
In the poll, here's what Americans told us.
1. WHO SHOULD DRAW DISTRICTS?
Most states leave the job of drawing legislative lines to the state legislature and the governor, who typically try to maximize their party's prospects by devising safely Republican or Democratic districts. That reduces the number of swing seats, where either side has a reasonable chance of winning.
In 1998, the non-partisan Cook Political Report counted 164 swing seats in the 435-member House. For the 2014 elections, that number of potentially competitive districts has been nearly halved, to 90.
"If a district is competitive, the question in the primary will be, who can appeal to the independent voters, the middle voters, the center?" says Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat. "If the district is not competitive, the primary process is simply a matter of appealing to the voters in the base within their party."
Change that, he says, and "that will change who goes to Washington, for sure."
Those surveyed are open to changing the current method, though they don't coalesce behind a single alternative. One-third like the idea of a bipartisan commission of state officials. One in five endorse having the state supreme court draw districts. Slightly more than one in four want to stick with state legislatures and governors.
"I like the idea of the bipartisan commission," says Deborah Wright, 53, a tax attorney from Atlantic City, who was among those called. "It's the Democrats and the Republicans, right? That would seem fair to me."
While Democrats and independents favor the bipartisan commission most, Republicans are inclined to prefer the current system - which, after all, has helped them maintain control of the House of Representatives even though Democratic candidates received more total votes last year.
2. WHO SHOULD VOTE IN PRIMARIES?
Changes in redistricting might not have much impact because Americans increasingly choose to live in communities with people who share their political views. It means even districts that aren't gerrymandered are likely to be dominated by one partisan point of view or another.
Still, broadening the group of voters who choose candidates by allowing independents to cast ballots in primaries could boost contenders in the middle of the political spectrum rather than at the extremes.
That's precisely what Bruce Zurbuchen, 53, an independent from Houston who was among those surveyed, tries to do when he votes in the GOP primary. Texas doesn't have party registration, so voters can cast ballots in either party's primaries. "Here in Texas, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Republican candidate will be the winner, and I feel my vote is best used in the primary, which is effectively the actual election," he says, usually opting to back the most centrist contender.
In last year's Senate primary, he voted for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst over Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz. Cruz, who won the primary and the general election, has become a firebrand leader in the fiscal battles - to Zurbuchen's dismay.
By nearly 3-1, those surveyed say independents should be allowed to vote in primaries. The idea was backed by solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
After listening to a follow-up question that articulated the case for each side, GOP enthusiasm waned.
One argument: "Independents should be allowed to vote in party primaries because it will help produce candidates in both parties who are more moderate and more willing to compromise." The alternative: "The members of each party should choose their own nominees so that they are represented by candidates who closely share their views and will stand for party principles."
Democrats by 56%-36% still endorsed the idea of open primaries after hearing those statements. Republicans by 50%-45% leaned against them.
"If someone is going to take the time to study a party's beliefs and core values and they want to align themselves with that party, they should have the right to decide who is going to represent them," says Deneen, a Republican.
3. SHOULD VOTING BE HARDER?
Moves by Texas and elsewhere to require photo IDs for voters have sparked controversy, Democratic protests and Justice Department investigations. But in the survey, eight in 10 Americans support the idea, including 70% of Democrats.
Indeed, the practice already seems common. Seven in 10 voters say they had to show a photo ID before casting a ballot in last year's presidential election.
Democrats warn that some voters will be disenfranchised. "In this country, you should be able to cast your ballot without a cost, without an obstacle, and it shouldn't be hard," Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said in an interview.
Republicans call it a common-sense requirement. "It would build confidence in the system; it would build confidence in the integrity of the ballot, and it's supported overwhelmingly by all three partisan groups," Ayres says. The GOP pollster notes the survey found significant concern about voter fraud. "While it's far from a majority, it's troubling when 20 to 25% of voters think illegal voting occurs frequently."
Law enforcement authorities and election scholars say voter fraud is rare, but Republicans aren't convinced: 39% of Republicans say they believe non-citizens frequently vote; 13% of Democrats say that happens a lot. Still, almost everyone endorses voter IDs.
"I have to show my ID to go to a bar and have a beer or to go to the store and buy a pack of cigarettes or to get a job or anything else in this country," says Jon Haubenstricker, 27, an engineer from East Dubuque, Ill., who was among those surveyed. A libertarian, he tends to vote Republican. Though he doesn't think voting illegalities are widespread, he says, "It would eliminate a lot of the arguments the more conservative base has regarding voter fraud."
Republicans and Democrats have sharply different priorities when it comes to elections. By 54%-43%, a majority of Republicans say it's more important to make sure no one commits voter fraud and harms the rights of legitimate voters. By 78%-20%, Democrats say it's more important to make sure every individual who has the right to vote is allowed to exercise that right.
No change in the way elections are run is going to eliminate the partisan divide on that or other issues, but analysts say some steps might help ameliorate the political impasse or make it easier to govern despite it.
"We know the polarization is deep and is not going to go away," says John Fortier, director of the BPC's Democracy Project. "So how do you govern with divided government? You have to do things like pass a budget and reach some agreements across party lines. Institutions have to adjust or find a way to work even though they're polarized."
Deborah Wright, the lawyer from Atlantic City, agrees. "They've got to get it together," she says.
4. SHOULD VOTING BE EASIER?
Voting in the 2012 presidential election apparently was easy.
Among those surveyed, nine in 10 say they are registered to vote. Of those, nine in 10 say they actually voted last year. (That reflects much higher turnout than the actual turnout of 57.5% of eligible voters, perhaps because some of those surveyed didn't want to admit they hadn't gone to the polls.)
Three of four voters call the process "very easy;" just 4% say it was difficult. About one in four say they had no wait at all to vote, and two-thirds voted in less than 10 minutes. Democrats encountered slightly longer times than Republicans, perhaps because more densely populated urban areas tend to be Democratic: 14% of Democrats say voting took longer than a half-hour, compared with 9% of Republicans.
Four in 10 say they voted before Election Day, mailing in an absentee ballot or taking advantage of early voting.
There is wide support for provisions such as those which make it easier to vote:
•74% back allowing early voting at polling places in the days leading up to Election Day. Although Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere have pushed limits on early voting, two-thirds of Republicans support the idea.
•59% support moving Election Day to the weekend instead of Tuesday. Republicans split on the issue.
•58% support allowing people to register on Election Day at the polls. Most Republicans oppose the idea.
Joshua Garcia, 27, a line cook who lives in Norwalk, Calif., in suburban Los Angeles, says it should be as easy as possible for people to vote. "Early voting is a really good idea, because certain people won't be able to make it to the polling places, like people working graveyard shifts," he says. But he draws the line at voting on the Internet: "It can be hacked or manipulated."
Most Americans agree. By 57%-40%, they reject the idea of voting online.