Party Primaries Must Go

Partisan primaries motivate legislators to keep in lockstep with a narrow and extreme slice of the electorate rather than govern in the public interest.

An illustration of three men with a finger pointing at them
Heritage Images / Print Collector / Getty / The Atlantic

Why did so many Republicans—147 of them—object to the Electoral College result on January 6?

Most voted to overturn the election out of fear. Not fear of the angry mob that had invaded the Capitol hours earlier, but fear of the voters who might threaten their reelection––specifically in their next party primary.

This is the “primary problem” in the U.S. political system today: A small minority of Americans decide the significant majority of our elections in partisan primaries that disenfranchise voters, distort representation, and fuel extremism––on both the left and, most acutely (at present), the right. The primary problem helps explain the stunning incongruity between Congress’s average 20 percent approval rating and its more than 90 percent reelection rate: There is a disconnect between what it takes to govern and what it takes to get reelected.

The problem stems from the fact that most members of Congress represent districts that have become reliably Democratic or Republican; some districts have been gerrymandered that way, but most are now “safe” for one party because of the electorate’s own self-sorting, driven by our growing rural and urban divide. Without any real competition in the general election, the only election of consequence in the large majority of congressional districts––and the only mechanism for accountability––is the primary.

Further, in lopsided districts, only the primary of the dominant party actually matters. In a majority of states, laws prohibit either unaffiliated voters or members of the other party from participating in these elections, sometimes both. And among those who can participate, very few do. Despite record turnout in the November 2020 election, just 10 percent of eligible voters nationwide cast ballots in primaries that effectively decided the outcome of more than 80 percent of U.S. House elections, according to a new report by Unite America, an organization I lead.

Partisan primaries motivate legislators to keep in lockstep with a narrow and extreme slice of the electorate rather than govern in the public interest—a dynamic that has now come to threaten democracy itself. As then-President Donald Trump told his supporters right before the insurrection, “You have to get your people to fight … We have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight. You primary them.”

January 6 should be the kick America needs to abolish partisan primaries. Some states have already started.

Three days after the insurrection, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska became the first Senate Republican to call for President Trump’s resignation; she later became the only Senate Republican up for reelection in 2022 who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial.

In any other election, and in almost any other state, Murkowski’s vote would likely have doomed her chances in a Republican primary. However, in November, Alaska became the latest state to ditch partisan primaries when its voters adopted a sweeping election-reform package on the ballot.

Under the reform, rather than both parties holding separate primary elections, all candidates will instead compete in a single, nonpartisan primary in which all voters can participate and select their preferred candidate. Then the top four finishers will advance to the general election, where voters will have the option to rank them. Whoever earns a majority of votes wins. (If no candidate earns a majority after first choices are counted, the race is decided by an “instant runoff”––whereby the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who ranked that candidate first have their second-place votes counted instead, and so on, until a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.)

With this reform, Alaska became the first state to combine a nonpartisan primary with ranked-choice voting in the general election. Known as “final-four voting,” this system has two major advantages. First, by abolishing party primaries, it eliminates elected leaders’ fear of being “primaried” by a small base of voters within their own party. Second, by abolishing plurality-winner elections and the “spoiler” effect they produce, it levels the playing field for independent and third-party candidates.

“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.

Although some have objected that nonpartisan primaries infringe on parties’ rights to free association and to select their candidates, the Supreme Court upheld the practice in 2008. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that parties are still free to hold their own nominating processes, but that “the First Amendment does not give political parties a right to have their nominees designated as such on the ballot.”

Academic research and election data have begun to capture the impact of these reforms.

First, all voters’ voices matter in nonpartisan primaries, no matter how red or blue a district might be. This could be one reason more voters participate. In 2020, average congressional turnout in California’s (34 percent) and Washington’s (45 percent) nonpartisan primaries was much higher than the average 25 percent turnout rate in partisan primaries elsewhere.

Second, nonpartisan primaries can advance less polarizing candidates. Analyzing congressional voting records from 2003 to 2018, the University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose found that, among newly elected members of Congress, “those elected in top-two primaries are more than 18 percentage points less extreme than closed primary legislators."

Other early research doubts the moderating effect of nonpartisan primaries, but reforms take time to make their full impact felt––including shifting who runs and who wins as incumbents retire.

And with more time, Alaska’s latest iteration of nonpartisan primaries—which will not only advance more candidates to the general election but also clear a wider lane for candidates outside both major parties through ranked-choice voting—is poised to have an even greater impact than “top two” systems in place today. Other states, such as Wisconsin, where a bipartisan bill to adopt a system similar to the Alaskan model was recently introduced, may soon follow suit.

The fate of American democracy rests not just with whom we elect, but with how we elect. If Americans want to break the cycle of political polarization before it breaks us with another January 6–style crisis, we must solve the “primary problem” and liberate our country’s leaders from the grips of political extremism.