WASHINGTON (June 1, 2022)—A new study by R Street Institute resident fellow Matt Germer examines the current state of primary elections, discusses how their purpose and form has changed over time and proposes reforms in light of current voter dissatisfaction.

Primaries have evolved over the years, with a variety of methods used in different states. According to Germer, they were “[o]riginally designed to air-out the party bosses’ smoke-filled rooms and democratize the candidate selection process.” But he notes that “primary elections have begun to serve a new function—winnowing candidates for the general election.” Voters, Germer notes, are frustrated with this current process, so now is the time to “reconsider the method of primary elections across the country and whether they still serve their intended purpose.”

The two current purposes of primary elections—partisan candidate selection and winnowing for the general election—are often at odds. Germer points out that changes to the system that better align the purpose of primaries with their processes would yield the best outcome.

Germer presents open and blanket primaries as two promising reforms to explore. An open primary allows all voters to participate and does not require registration with a political party. A blanket primary includes candidates from all political persuasions on the same ballot and a top-two, top-four or run-off election is used to determine the eventual winner. While these reforms are at odds with the historical partisan purposes of primaries, they address voters’ frustration with political parties and the voting system.

Three key points:

  1. In the context of American history, primary elections are relatively new—starting in the early 20th century and only becoming the system we know today over the last 50 years. They were originally designed to allow party members more say in their nominees.
  2. With the current frustration of voters in mind, it is appropriate to reconsider the method of primary elections across the country and whether they serve their intended purpose.
  3. As primaries act more as a nonpartisan winnowing process for the general, states should begin to look toward open and blanket primaries as possible reforms.

Read the full study here.