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The Primary Peril

Is it Super PACs or the liberal media that’s corrupting Washington? While most presidential candidates recognize the American political process is broken, they can’t seem to agree on which special interest to blame. Amidst all this scapegoating, they’ve failed to identify another factor in our political system that is unjustly biased towards a fraction of the voting population and distorting American democracy: the primary elections themselves.

Primary elections are, at present, blatantly undemocratic. Turnout at these elections is much lower than the already dismal voter participation rates in general elections, and most states actively exclude independent voters from these primaries or indirectly exclude others through confusing scheduling. In many states, only a handful of eligible voters participate in these elections — roughly 20 percent — although the exact number can fluctuate greatly. In the 2014 primaries, the state of Iowa had the lowest voter participation rate of any state, with just 9.7 percent of eligible voters participating, even though it was home to one of the year’s closest Senate races. This primary malaise hasn’t always been the norm, but primary voter participation rates have been trending rapidly downward only over the past few election cycles.

Because of low voting turnout rates, certain types of voters are overrepresented in primary contests. While there is limited data on primary voter demographics, one study from California found that in the Golden State, primary voters are less likely to be young, Latino, or Asian. Many political scientists also claim that the primary electorate is more politically radical than the general population, pointing to Tea Party wins in Republican contests. This makes intuitive sense since the majority of states prohibit independent voters from participating in primaries in some way; thus, the voting population in primaries is inherently more polarized.

As a result, primary results are determined by a small subset of the general voting population, giving rise to more extreme candidates and increasing partisan polarization on both sides of the political spectrum. The reason that primary elections may produce polarization is simple: Because party primaries usually exclude moderate, independent voters, participants tend to be more radical. But in areas with one dominant political party, like California or Utah, the most important electoral competition occurs during the primary, as resultant nominees face limited opposition in general elections. In fact, competitiveness in general elections has been decreasing as districts become more divided; the percentage of people living in uncontested state house districts was the highest ever in 2014. The trend is true for congressional seats as well, with 224 uncontested ‘landslide’ districts today, compared to just 123 such districts in 1992. As such, primaries have become even more important as general elections have become increasingly irrelevant. Though voters may not turn out for primaries, these contests often effectively determine election results long before voters cast their ballots in the general election. In fact, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, arguing for open primaries and a reformed structure to primary elections, went so far as to partly blame the partisan gridlock in Congress on the radicalization of primary elections.

But solving the primary problem might be more difficult than it would seem at first glance. One seemingly obvious solution to produce elected officials that represent moderate viewpoints would be to open primaries up to more voters. Considering that a majority of states exclude independent voters from party primaries in some way, it seems as if the problem could easily solved by removing this restriction. Yet a widely-cited study in the American Journal of Political Science found little, if any, correlation between open primaries and moderate politicians. This could be explained by the fact that most independent voters are not centrists; they tend to consistently favor one party or the other. In open primaries, therefore, the independent voters that participate are not moderate, and as a result, primaries are still tainted by more radical voters.

Another reform idea that goes beyond simply expanding eligibility is the “top-two” primary system, in which all voters participate in one primary election regardless of political orientation. The top two candidates from this election then proceed to compete against each other in the general election. This system can produce general elections in which members of the same party run against each other for one seat. In “landslide” districts dominated by one party, the top-two primary system can increase the stakes in the general election.

Still, election results from the only three states that have a “top-two” system – California, Louisiana, and Washington – seem to indicate subpar results. A 2013 study on California elections under the top-two primary system casts doubt on the notion that the approach produces less polarized politicians. Additionally, in 2012, when California first voted under the new primary system, voter turnout was the second-lowest on record, despite the fact that the top-two system opens the contest to independent voters. In Washington, election results have produced only anecdotal evidence that the top two system produces moderate politicians, and in Louisiana, primary elections are still shamefully uncompetitive and plagued by low turnout. However, the top-two system  remains largely untested; as voters become familiar with the new primary structure, California and other states may start to notice changes in their electoral processes. But for now, the top-two primary has not produced the intended change its proponents promised.

Why is it that none of the seemingly intuitive primary reform ideas work? Both open primaries and top-two primaries have not increased the number of moderate politicians elected or even voter participation rates. It seems likely that reformed primaries do not change anything because the political system, and the polarization within it, is too complex and multifaceted to be seriously improved by just one structural change. While party primaries may contribute to unresponsive, partisan politics, they are only one factor contributing to the problem. Other electoral practices – gerrymandered and uncompetitive districts, winner-take-all voting, and the influence of money in campaign financing – play a larger role in removing electoral power from the people and making government less representative of the people it is intended to represent. The root of the problem extends beyond primary elections and reforming just one component in the system is inadequate.  Therefore, primary election reform must be paired with other electoral reform efforts that mitigate corruption and polarization.

Any effort to reverse the toxic trends in our nation’s electoral practices must be comprehensive in scope. A good place to start would be the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recently-released, comprehensive report, which details multiple steps towards the aim of reducing partisanship in governance. While such a proposal may seem politically unfeasible and idealistic, the good news is that support for electoral reform is growing. In addition to the primary reforms mentioned above, proposals for reforms such as public funding of campaigns, redistricting by nonpartisan commissions, and fair representation voting have begun to gain traction. However distant substantive electoral reform may seem, progress is being made.

Of course, it’s likely none of this will be discussed as presidential candidates jockey for primary votes. But the first step towards any change is to convince people there is a problem. As evidenced by the unrepresentative and undemocratic trends in our nation’s governance, there is very much a problem — not just rooted in primary elections, but within the electoral process at large. With primary season in full swing, Americans will see firsthand the detrimental effect that polarized primary elections have on the political process. Hopefully, voters in this primary election cycle will support candidates that recognize the systemic issues at hand. Unless, of course, those voters are independents and, therefore, unable to participate in primary elections – in which case, the system is working just as it always has.

Image by Denise Cross Photography

About the Author

Jacob Binder is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.