Voices & Choices

How the Fair Representation Act Can Solve the “Primary Problem”

How the Fair Representation Act Can Solve the “Primary Problem”

‘Tis the season of primary elections. 

These races are increasingly exciting and salient, but not for good reason. Between partisan gerrymandering and geographical sorting, more and more congressional districts are safely red or blue. This means that in a red district, whoever wins the Republican primary will win the general election with ease. The same can be said for the winner of the Democratic primary in a blue district. 

In 2020, this is how it went in 82% of congressional districts, and there’s no sign that number will go down in 2022. This means that, in most of the country, general election voters do not have a meaningful voice in who their representative will be.

The problem isn’t necessarily that party primary elections exist. It is a problem when primary voters are also essentially picking who wins the general election. 

There are different approaches on how to fix what is now dubbed “the primary problem.” Some advocates propose eliminating party primaries in favor of open, nonpartisan primaries. Some states (California, Washington, and recently Alaska) have already done so. 

The good news? The Fair Representation Act (FRA) – which would replace our single-member congressional districts with multi-member districts elected proportionally – solves the primary problem, no matter what type of primary election each state chooses to use. 

The FRA is compatible with traditional party primaries. The only difference is that out of party primaries come not one winner, but up to as many winners as there are seats up for election in the district. For example, in a 3-member district, each party could nominate up to 3 candidates, giving general election voters a meaningful and diverse choice of up to 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats, as well as independent or minor-party candidates who run in the general election. 

The FRA is also compatible with nonpartisan primaries, where all candidates compete on the same primary ballot. For example, a nonpartisan primary could advance twice as many candidates as there are seats in a district, meaning 6 primary-approved candidates of any affiliation could compete for 3 seats in the general election. 

Either way, the FRA solves the primary problem, because primary elections would no longer act as the be-all, end-all of most congressional elections. With the larger geographical districts the FRA creates, it is naturally harder to draw districts in ways that pack partisans together (creating fewer “safe” districts where the race is decided by primary voters). Every multi-member district would have both “red” and “blue” members. 

What’s more, the FRA lays out criteria for how states draw districts, to prevent the drawing of districts where all seats are decidedly partisan (see section “Criteria'' in the bill’s text). So while most districts electing 3 or more members would be likely to elect at least 1 Republican and 1 Democrat, each district would also be more likely to contain a “swing seat.” The closer a race is, the more important each general election voter becomes. And if more districts have a swing seat, more general election votes matter. 

Also, a primary win no longer guarantees a general election win, since candidates will likely compete against fellow party members on the general election ballot. Therefore it is general election voters who decide which Republican(s), Democrat(s), or other candidate(s) would best represent them. 

For example, even in a 3-seat majority-Democratic district, any given Democratic nominee isn’t guaranteed to win a seat just by making it out of the primary. Due to the FRA’s district-drawing criteria, a Republican is likely to capture one of the seats, meaning 3 Democrats may be competing for two spots. Most importantly, this part of the competition is taking place in front of and decided by general election voters – a bigger and more diverse group than primary voters. 

The FRA solves the primary problem, no matter which type of primary you pair it with. States can use the nomination process of their choice, without those nominations being the only thing that matters – leaving the true deciding power with the people. 

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