Voices & Choices

The primary problem with American primaries: lack of competition

The primary problem with American primaries: lack of competition

The following blog was released as a new FairVote report.

Editor’s note: America's Primary Problem is a report principally authored by Paul Schimek PhD. FairVote advocates for different approaches to primary elections depending on the context, including eliminating them, as the report advocates, and keeping them with ranked choice voting, as was used in Maine. In all cases, our advocacy seeks to promote more fair and competitive elections.

Lack of competition in the elections for the U.S. House has left many Americans with a bad taste in their mouths. An essential ingredient — competition — has been too often removed from the recipe for American democracy, and the results are unpalatable.

Incumbents dominate and competitive elections have disappeared. In 2016, 97 percent  of incumbent House members seeking re-election were successful. And this is typical: the re-election rate has been above 90 percent for decades. Worse still, the party primary system often decides winners in low-turnout races that exclude certain voters by law.

The U.S. is unique among Western democracies in its use of government-run party primaries. Over time, this system has produced some unintended consequences. American political parties used to take on the cost of running campaigns, even in districts where odds of success were low. The current reliance on primary elections gives parties little reason to challenge a well-entrenched incumbent, restricting competition.

Open-seat primary elections are frequently the only time voters can participate in competitive elections. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of open seat races were won by a candidate who did not receive a majority of votes. And these all-important open seat primaries — where competition is at its greatest —see less than one-third the turnout of a general election, on average.

California, Louisiana, and Washington have replaced party primary elections with two-round systems: California and Washington winnow the field to two in “preliminaries” held before November, while Louisiana holds a post-November runoff if no candidate earns a majority of the votes in the general election.

A better solution is ranked choice voting with elimination of primaries and equitable ballot access rules, implemented nationally. This reform would increase participation, reduce administrative costs, prevent plurality wins, and open participation by new parties while eliminating the need for two elections.

Paul Schimek’s new report outlines this multi-pronged solution to America's primary problem: one national vote with ranked choice voting and uniform, equitable rules for party registration and ballot access. These improvements, in turn, invigorate our democracy and level the playing field for candidates of all parties and political beliefs.

Read the full report here.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham 

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