WASHINGTON - In a year that has been good to outsider candidates tilting away from the political center, reformers in Minnesota and elsewhere are looking for alternatives to increasingly polarized elections.

From a ranked choice initiative in Minnesota to a single open primary plan in California, the search is on for ways to rein in the influence of major party primary elections that seem to be drifting toward the extremes of the electorate.

"There's been a lot of soul-searching about how the whole system works," said Elizabeth Glidden, a Minneapolis City Council member involved with FairVote Minnesota, a group that's been collecting signatures at the State Fair for a statewide ranked choice system, in which voters pick candidates in order of preference.

At the same time, California voters approved a controversial ballot measure this spring requiring all candidates to run in a single open primary, a plan designed to elect politicians who represent a broader swath of the electorate. The top two vote-getters, even if they're from the same party, would face off in a general election.

Both proposals have their critics, and the odds are uncertain against implementation of either plan. California's Proposition 14 already faces a legal challenge, as does a similar, existing system in Washington state.

Some political observers say polarized elections reflect this year's rancorous political climate, and it will take more than tinkering with institutional reforms to produce moderate candidates.

"It will take a movement of moderates, and I don't think we're seeing that now," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put his considerable political muscle behind the Proposition 14 effort.

Meanwhile, in statewide races from Alaska to Florida, voters have surprised the political establishment by advancing outsider candidates from the left and right of the political spectrum, setting up starkly contrasting choices in the fall general elections.

"Voters seem to be rejecting anything that smacks of being an insider, or politics as usual," said University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket, who has written extensively about political polarization.

The Minnesota example

One example that experts cite is Minnesota's governor's race, featuring an unwavering conservative who would opt out of the new federal health care law and an unabashed liberal who wants to raise taxes on the rich.

Republican Tom Emmer got the nod from Tea Party idol Sarah Palin. DFLer Mark Dayton edged out his party's endorsed nominee. Neither was the most centrist choice in this summer's primaries. In that, Minnesota was hardly alone.

In Florida, Republican Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio forced sitting GOP Gov. Charlie Crist to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent, setting up a three-way race with Democrat Kendrick Meek. Sharron Angle, a Tea Party movement Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, defeated a former state GOP chairwoman in the primary to square off against Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. And in Alaska, Republican Joe Miller, another Palin "Mama Grizzly cub," defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a GOP primary.

Amid hard economic times and roiling political ferment on the right, analysts are not surprised to see the political extremes gain ground. "Primaries have always attracted voters who tend to be more ideological, conservative on the right and liberal on the left," University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said. "These are the people who are paying attention and feel most strongly about it."

But what has surprised observers is the series of primary victories by candidates on the far edge of the political spectrum, particularly within the Republican Party, which has faced Tea Party-flavored insurgencies around the country.

'Magic bullet'

Voters in Minnesota, much like in Florida, now face essentially a three-way governor's race with Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, a former Republican with room to position himself as the centrist in the group.

But under a California-style "Top Two" primary system, Horner and the rest of the gubernatorial field would be left off the ballot. To critics, therein lies the hitch.

"All those voters who aren't represented by those two parties don't have anyone to come out and vote for," said Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote Minnesota. "We've not heard any appetite for that kind of model here in Minnesota."

Instead, Massey and others are pushing for a statewide ranked choice voting system, similar to one pioneered in Minneapolis, where Mayor R.T. Rybak is a big supporter. "It's not about helping one ideology as much as helping more people to vote," he said.

Basically, voters rank their choices, with the second choices of voters counting when their first-choice candidates place last -- until one candidate surpasses 50 percent. The idea is to include more parties, build voter participation and preclude the possibility of anyone winning without a majority, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty did in his past two elections. Backers say it wouldn't necessarily nudge candidates to the center, but would ensure that winners represent a wider range of voters.

Academic researchers say there are too many other factors -- money and media being the chief ones -- to say whether such changes would temper the ideological fervor that has defined this election season. But either way, they expect to see proposals similar to ranked choice voting and Proposition 14 spread to other states.

"Some people think it's the magic bullet -- it may or may not be," said Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan, an expert witness in a pending court challenge in Washington state.

California newsletter publisher Richard Winger, a leading opponent of Proposition 14, questions whether the measure's bedrock appeal to independent voters would make elections any less partisan. "Everyone assumes independent voters are moderates," he said. "That's not true."

Most research shows independent voters simply mirror the ideological divisions of the voters around them. And right now, outsider appeal is strong.

"When conditions are bad, people get more interested in political ideas and political ideology," Winger said. "And they want an ideology that promises to make drastic changes."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.