Study Suggests America’s Primary Election System Ripe for Reform
Political primaries are not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, but it’s highly likely the founding fathers would have rejected them outright had anyone thought to suggest them at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
Primaries came into being as a reform intended to air out the party bosses’ smoke-filled rooms and make the government more responsive to the will of the American people.
But in a new report, America’s Primary Elections Are Ripe For Reform, Matthew Germer, a resident fellow with the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., argues the one-time reform is now itself in need of some serious refurbishing.
“Political primaries haven’t always been flawed per se, but their purpose has changed over time, as has our political environment. Today, I think, primaries are one of the drivers of our current political dysfunction,” Germer said in an email to The Well News.
In his paper, Germer, who previously played a key policy role in both the Washington and Oregon State legislatures, explores the origin of primary elections; how the purpose of primaries has shifted over time; whether our current system achieves that purpose; and what reforms could be made to better accomplish the task.
Helping to drive his narrative is the growing discontent of primary voters who rely on primaries to determine which candidates appear on the ballot, but despair over whether the choices really are “the best-qualified nominees.”
In response to those frustrations, a number of advocacy organizations have urged states to do away with “closed primaries” held on behalf of each party, and to instead embrace “open primaries,” which effectively do away with party registration requirements or “blanket primaries,” that include candidates of all political persuasions on the same ballot.
A number of states have responded by adopting one of these proposals, while others are in the process of considering them, and others seem determined to stand pat.
To those who pay only scant attention to elections and politics, this patchwork might seem to cloud the issue of the most effective way to hold a primary. Germer, however, said that in some ways he was “pleasantly surprised at the diversity of primary elections in this country.
“Our federalist model continues to use states as the laboratories of democracy, and that’s a very positive thing,” he said.
“At this point, the states that have a truly closed primary system are in the minority,” he said. “At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of states — among them Alaska, Washington, California and Maine, that are really trying new ideas.
“So I’m encouraged by our continued spirit to ‘form a more perfect union,’” Germer said.
But, as Germer’s paper makes clear, primaries are subject to evolutionary processes and the new set of questions that arise with them.
“As I said in my paper, prior to primaries, candidate selection was handled entirely by party bosses and elites … So in a meaningful way, primary elections represented a more just and inclusive system,” Germer said.
“Over the last 100 years, primaries have expanded to be something more than a purely internal party process. Today, for instance, they routinely involve public dollars,” he said. “But the fact public dollars are routinely spent on party primary elections really opens up the fairness argument around closed primaries.
“Why should independent voters’ tax dollars be spent on processes they cannot participate in? Or further, even if you belong to a major party, you may live in a state or district where your party is in a deep minority, and closed primaries lock you out of the most meaningful part of the electoral process. There is definitely something unjust about that situation.
“If the parties want to go back to a purely internal process, where they spend their own money on conventions or an internal election to pick nominees, that could ameliorate some of the fairness problems around closed primaries,” Germer continued. “But the public is seeking greater involvement in the candidate selection process, not less, and public dollars are likely going to continue to be spent on primary elections, as a result blanket primaries with a top-two, top-four, or top-five system are a much more practical answer.”
In his paper, Germer notes that top-four or top-five systems of primary voting create pathways for more candidates to move forward to compete in the general election.
“This means voters whose preferred candidate is not the frontrunner would have more reason to participate in the primary election, and one benefit of that is it could increase turnout,” he said.
Even if it does occur, Germer said the traditional gap in turnout in general elections and primary elections will likely persist.
“And that’s because many Americans are comfortable letting others winnow the candidate pool for them,” he said. “The benefit of ideas like top-four or top-five model is that everyone who wants to participate in a primary election can have a more meaningful say in who moves forward to the general election, and perhaps more importantly, politicians will not face the same incentives to cater to the most extreme elements of their parties in order to win a primary.”
But that’s not to suggest a change in primary structure will cure all the ills of the American electoral process. Some mischief or shenanigans will always be part of the bargain.
“Looking to Georgia this past month,” Germer said. “There is some evidence that Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters crossed over and voted for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defended the integrity of the 2020 election, over Jody Hice, who questioned the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“In doing so, they helped push Raffensperger over the runoff threshold. Raffensperger is likely a tougher opponent in the general election, so while this kind of crossover vote is ‘against interest’ for Democrats, it shows that open primaries actually create an opportunity to reduce the proliferation of extremism.”
Which causes one to wonder just how the spread of open primaries might affect the future of political parties.
“This is a big question, and I’m glad you asked,” Germer said. “Concerns over the harmful impact of political parties on our political culture have been present since the founding of our country, and our electoral system has contributed to our tendencies to tribalism.
“Replacing election rules that create bad incentives with rules that promote healthier incentives may have the effect of reducing some of the partisan animosity, but there will still be plenty to go around,” Germer said.
“But if fewer politicians were worried about primary challenges arising just because they decided to take a seat at the bargaining table, it might help move our political culture in a healthier direction over the long term,” he said.
“While we’re on the subject, we may also help heal our political culture if we do a better job of bringing along all Americans, whether they support winning or losing candidates. This means not only primary reform, but also restoring trust in election administration, combating misinformation and election myths, and demanding more virtue from our politicians,” Germer concluded.
“Democracy relies upon the consent of the losers, and it falls on all of us to take steps to reduce partisanship and reach out to everyone.”