What are the main take-aways from the 2018 primary season from an election reform perspective? In summary, some good news, some problems, and some emerging solutions.
The good news is that competition and participation both increased significantly in 2018, as more people ran, more people voted, and more primaries actually offered choice to voters. The number of candidates seeking office jumped by 30 percent compared with 2016, and the percent of primaries that were contested also rose significantly, particular for House races (see charts below).
More competition contributed to a major increase in turnout, as thirteen million more people voted than in the last non-presidential-year primary. Turnout rose to approximately 18 percent of registered voters this year, up from thirteen percent in 2014.
But there’s bad news here as well. First, 18 percent voter turnout and 23 percent of primaries contested are still dismal, still indicative of a breakdown in the connection between citizens and representatives fundamental to democracy. At the state legislative level, less than 20 percent of primaries across the country offered any choice to voters at all.
Second, races that did feature more competition often ran into the shortcomings of the simple plurality election system still used in most districts, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether that candidate has majority support.
In crowded races, simple plurality rules often result in winners with low percentages of the vote, who may not be preferred by, or even in step with, the majority. Primary season closed with several dramatic examples of a low plurality winners, including Lori Trahan’s victory with 21.6 percent of the vote in a ten-candidate field in the Massachusetts 3rd Congressional district.
Of all the primaries this year for House, Senate and state-wide offices, 117 resulted in plurality winners, including 34 primaries won with less than 35 percent of the vote. The chart to the left, focused on just the House, illustrates the significant increase in plurality primary winners, with 86 this year nearly doubling the average of the prior three elections.
Thirty percent of the races this fall that are key to control of the House (those ranked as “toss up” or “lean” by the Cook Political Report) include at least one candidate who won in the primary without majority support.