“The ultimate purpose is not necessarily to change who wins. It is to change what the winners are incentivized to do,” Katherine Gehl, the founder of the Institute for Political Innovation, explains. Gehl originally proposed the reform in a seminal 2017 Harvard Business School report on political competition that she co-authored with Michael Porter, and their ideas helped shape Alaska’s ballot initiative.
A growing reform movement is now working to seed and support new campaigns around the country—with the aim of replacing partisan primaries as quickly as they were created nearly a century ago.
Partisan primaries may seem like a natural and immutable part of the American political system, but they are a relatively new phenomenon. For much of American history, party leaders would pick their party’s candidates without any public participation at all. As Boss Tweed famously remarked, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”
That changed in the Progressive Era, when reformers sought to crack down on political corruption. Wisconsin became the first state to allow voters to directly nominate candidates for each party through primary elections in 1904, and within a decade, a majority of states were doing the same.
Reformers got the problem right, but the solution wrong. Rather than empowering voters, direct primaries enshrined a role for political parties, which are private entities, in a publicly funded electoral process. And in so doing, the party bases became the new party bosses.
Not only do few voters participate in these elections, but those who do tend to be the most partisan and ideological––skewing election outcomes and governing incentives.
In 2018, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the incumbent Joseph Crowley by fewer than 5,000 votes in a closed primary election in which less than 8 percent of the district’s age-eligible voters participated. In 2020, Representative Denver Riggleman of Virginia caught flak for officiating a same-sex wedding and was tossed out of office by just 2,500 Republican delegates at a drive-through party convention held in a church parking lot.
Though losing a primary is relatively rare for an incumbent, researchers at the Brookings Institution and the R Street Institute argue that those losses “have an outsized psychological influence on members precisely because they are so unexpected.”
The polarization produced by partisan primaries has been a driving force for their reform. In 2004, a century after the introduction of the direct primary election, Washington became the first state to adopt a nonpartisan “top two” primary for all elections, which expanded to California in 2010. (Nebraska has used this system only for its state legislature since 1934.) Under this system, all candidates appear on a single primary ballot, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.