Primaries Are America’s Pathway to Division. It’s Time to Change Course.
In 2022, according to the Cook Political Report, only 32 out of the 435 House of Representative seats were toss-ups. The rest, because of gerrymandering, were either safely held by one party or the other. With most House seats preordained, in many districts, a party’s primary is essentially the general election.
By drawing the most motivated voters, primaries provide outsized power to a small segment of the overall electorate, incentivizing the partisan styled politics that have crippled Washington over recent years. The problems endemic to party primaries are magnified when multiple candidates vie for the same nomination. In such cases, often more partisan candidates with a large minority of base support can and often win. For example, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz first ran for Congress in 2016. Vying for an open seat that was being vacated by a Republican incumbent, Mr. Gaetz faced six primary opponents. While losing 64% of primary voters, Mr. Gaetz nonetheless won the Republican nomination. In his ruby red district, after the primary, Gaetz’s general election was all but assured.
Donald Trump’s 2016 nomination followed a similar path. Initially facing eleven opponents, through Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Trump did not earn more than 35% of the Republican primary vote in any state. In fact, it took till New York’s April primary, months into the primary season and only after the field had been whittled to three, for Donald Trump to win a majority of votes in any primary contest. Based upon the number of announced candidates running for the 2024 Republican primary, 2024 is already looking eerily like 2016. With multiple candidates seeking the Republican primary, Trump does not need to appeal to a majority of primary voters, just to his substantial number of already committed supporters.
Since primaries draw the most motivated of a party’s supporters, it is politically risky for any politician to vote outside prevailing party expectations. Consider what happened to the House Republicans who voted for Donald Trump’s impeachment. Of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump, four resigned (Reps. Gonzalez, Katko, Kinzinger, and Upton), and four lost primaries to Trump backed challengers (Reps. Beutler, Cheney, Meijer, and Rice). Only two Republicans (Reps. Newhouse and Valadeao) voted to impeach Donald Trump and won reelection, and they competed in open primaries where all voters (not just Republicans) participated. The vast majority of House Republicans were not willing to risk their political futures to impeach Trump, even if they had wanted to.
As primaries continually flush out centrist politicians who seek to work across the aisle in favor of more politically extreme candidates, the consequences to America have been profound. Congress has become more polarized and deadlocked, and as exemplified by the contentious vote for House speaker, politicians can now hardly find consensus amongst their own party, let alone forge agreements with the other. The status quo is unsustainable, and change is necessary. Fortunately, we do not need to look far for better alternatives.
Since 2004 in Washington and 2010 in California, Congressional primaries have been nonpartisan so voters can support any candidate, Republican, Democrat, or other, and the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, move forward to compete in the general election. This top-two primary system enables one party to have two candidates for office in districts where one party may dominate. More importantly, it allows all general election voters to support one candidate, or more importantly, vote against the other. It was no coincidence that the only House Republicans to have voted for Donald Trump’s impeachment and win reelection, were from California and Washington.
In 2020, Alaskan voters passed electoral reform to change how that State’s primaries were run. Unlike California and Washington’s top-two primary system, in Alaska, the top four candidates in a nonpartisan primary move forward to the general election, where the winner is determined by ranked choice voting. Under ranked choice, voters rank candidates by their preference and the winner must receive 50% plus one vote to win. If no candidate has a majority of the total vote after the first round of counting, over successive rounds, the next choice of voters from the candidate receiving the least votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates until one candidate reaches the 50% plus one threshold. Ranked choice voting tempers extremism by forcing candidates to compete for the majority of the electorate, and not just for the votes of an impassioned minority.
The measures to reform the primary system in California, Washington, and Alaska were passed as ballot measures, and in Washington and Alaska the measures were voter initiated. Over twenty other states allow voters to initiate constitutional amendments, statutes, or referendums. While it may be difficult to motivate entrenched political interests to change the status quo, in states that allow direct democracy, the people can take it upon themselves to reform the electoral system.
America is being broken by primaries that perversely incentivize electoral extremes. But Americans can fight back. As evidenced by Washington and Alaska, in states that allow voter initiatives, the people can side-step party apparatuses that prefer the status quo. The United States is not as divided as it seems and through reforming the primary system, America can chart a new course toward political sustainability.