America’s Primary Problem

      No Comments on America’s Primary Problem

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that primary elections — with varied dates and rules, incredibly low turnout, and frequent plurality winners, when there is any contest at all — are a big part of what ails American democracy.

The “top two” system used in California and Washington addresses some of these problems, but leaves many unanswered, as I describe in this post for FairVote’s Voices and Choices blog.

In their new book, Democracy in America?, political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens call for “eliminat[ing] the scourge of obscure, low information, biased-turnout primaries.” They argue that primaries are a key source of the link between increased money in politics and increasingly unrepresentative results, since campaign cash can be particularly effective in low-turnout elections.

That seems like an important argument, but it has not been tested. I am going to see if there is a link between campaign expenditures and success in primary elections in open seat contests.

I also am going to calculate the proportion of open seat contests with plurality winners, and consider the gap in turnout between primary and general elections.

It appears that Ranked Choice Voting will be used for the June primaries in Maine, making for the first statewide use of the system since Maryland used it about 100 years ago,

Adopting RCV creates an opportunity to eliminate primaries, since with RCV the number of candidates on the ballot does not affect the result the way it frequently does in a plurality contest and even in a two-round contest where there are many similar candidates.

Eliminating primaries creates a huge opportunity to have a more representative electorate, and perhaps even some competition, which is highly unusual in American politics, since incumbent legislators almost always win.

Adopting RCV and eliminating primaries also creates an opportunity to change the rules so that political parties can again develop, as they did in 19th century America. Under current state laws, a party can neither control its membership nor its selection of candidates. New political parties face discriminatory rules that make it exceedingly difficult to put up a slate of candidates. And under current rules, if a new party were to elect its members, it still would not have control over the use of its brand name. (For example, recently the Illinois Republican Party could do nothing to stop a neo-Nazi from becoming its standard-bearer for a Congressional seat.)

These reforms can work together to transform American elections:

  • easy and equitable access to the ballot for all non-frivolous candidates
  • fair and equitable rules for recognizing political parties
  • if a candidate accepts the endorsement of one or more political parties, the party names are printed on the ballot
  • political parties have the freedom to decide how to make endorsements
  • a single election using Ranked Choice Voting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *