The idea of rule by “the people” is at the core of America’s founding, but from the beginning, there was a relatively narrow understanding of who “the people” were.

Although the days of landowning White males monopolizing political power ended generations ago, the limitation of the franchise has not. In fact, a broken primary system and increased polarization are at risk of narrowing it further — even, perhaps, to one person.

Despite many restrictions on voting removed during Reconstruction and the Progressive and Civil Rights eras, insiders and elites still determined which candidates appeared on general election ballots. Which people are vested with political power has changed throughout our history, and most of the time, politicians have had to appeal only to a small subset of Americans.

In recent years, the selection of candidates in proverbial smoke-filled rooms has given way to partisan primary elections that, at least in theory, open the vote to all Americans but in reality, restrict meaningful decision-making almost as much.

These modern primaries are “relatively new” and have become the norm for 50 years. In many parts of the country, primary voters have an outsized influence on who serves in office and sets the national agenda.

In some states, parties allow all voters to participate in primaries regardless of party affiliation. Many, however, limit voting only to people who are party members, and some use nominating conventions that further restrict participation to all but the most passionate party loyalists. While any voter can register with a party and vote in the primary election of their choice, the full electorate typically gets to choose only from a winnowed field primary voters have already chosen.

Since 2016, in one party, those most passionate party loyalists have tended to defer almost unquestionably to one figure — now former president Donald Trump. The question of who is best suited to win a general election, much less faithfully serving the state, seems to be an afterthought.

Consider the Pennsylvania Senate race as an example. On the right, Republicans have nominated Mehmet Oz, an acolyte of Trump who seems to know little about public policy questions relevant to his potential new role. Oz may still prevail over his opponent, John Fetterman, himself a product of a narrow wing of his party, but his luck is not likely to be shared by Trump-endorsed gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano.

One state away, odds approach zero that Trump’s handpicked nominee, Dan Cox, will become governor of Maryland.

In statewide races, there is usually, at least, a competition once the tiny sliver of citizens advance nominees. Such is not the case at the district level, where an increasing number of general elections don’t matter. A recent analysis found that competitive districts have declined from about 40 percent two decades ago to fewer than 20 percent today. The outcomes of many general election contests are known long before any November votes are cast.

There are many reasons for this trend, including the well-documented ideological sorting of the major parties. Many Americans are even moving to places where their neighbors’ political views match their own, helping to shut out minority political perspectives in many regions of the country. When towns and cities are homogenous, and primaries determine who holds office, it should be no surprise when many elected representatives lie at the political extremes. The relatively recent phenomenon of a former president essentially handpicking elected officials from afar is another symptom of this problem.

To some degree, no political reform will be able to fix this problem. But some innovative reforms like final-five voting, which makes primaries more inclusive and reduces the need for strategic voting, hold the promise of changing incentives for candidates and elected officials. The recent special election in Alaska illustrates the point where a more moderate Democrat defeated far-right Sarah Palin, even in the thoroughly red state. There’s no reason this outcome can’t work in reverse, and Alaska provides evidence that small improvements result in outcomes that better reflect the entirety of the electorate.

Although the founders may not have intended for all Americans to determine who represents their political interests, it’s hard to imagine that today’s political fringes are the “we the people” we deserve. And as we watch the returns roll in on Tuesday night, it’s worth remembering how those outcomes were influenced by a flawed process that limits choice to two extremes.