This analysis reflects the opinion of the author rather than FairVote as an organization.
Unite America has published an insightful report detailing the benefits of implementing ranked choice voting (RCV) along with non-partisan primary elections, exploring how a move away from traditional partisan primaries would benefit the American people and alleviate many of the problems facing the electoral system. Reforms to primaries have the potential to greatly increase voter representation, candidate accountability, and civic engagement, making this study an important read for legislators and citizens alike.
Unite America’s report exposes multiple problems with America’s current electoral system, arguing that partisan primaries do not truly serve the interests of voters, counteracting the principles of political representation enshrined in the Constitution. Political theorists such as Katherine Gehl argue that this system “is failing America,” as partisan primaries incentivize candidates to move far to the left or right, because Republican and Democratic primary voters tend to be heavily polarized and not representative of the state's voters as a whole. Elected officials worry they will be “primaried” and lose their seat if they express centrist views instead of appealing to their respective party, limiting bipartisanship by promoting extreme political positions, and causing a disconnect between politicians and the majority of voters. This problem is captured by former Alaska state rep Chuck Kopp, who asserts that primaries create a system in which candidates “only have to message to and appeal to the extreme edge of the parties, left and right, and activate those to vote.”
The negative impacts of this system can be seen in the low national voter turnout in partisan primaries, with national voter participation being a meager 18% in 2014’s partisan primaries. Because of this phenomenon, a small portion of the electorate decides which candidates will be on the ballot in general elections, effectively narrowing the candidate pool and preventing candidates with centrist views from advancing. Unite America argues that a switch to nonpartisan primaries would alleviate this problem, as voters are no longer penalized for their political affiliations, allowing all voters to have a say in who advances to general elections. Additionally, the report highlights specific benefits of the “top four” model, in which the top four candidates from a non-partisan primary advance to a ranked choice voting general election. Alaska made this change in 2020 when voters approved a ballot question to move to top-four primaries, combined with RCV in the general election.
The implementation of non-partisan primaries with RCV will “make it very likely that candidates will need to compete against opponents from their party,” shifting the focus of elections from party affiliation to specific political issues plaguing the community. Importantly, as Gehl argues, a switch to RCV is “not necessarily to change who wins,” but to reform elections to free politicians from the constrictive two-party primary system that encourages political infighting and makes cooperation amongst political parties difficult. In this sense, a switch to nonpartisan primaries will allow politicians to more effectively do their jobs, decreasing polarization and allowing problems facing the community to be solved.
While the report from Unite America supports non-partisan primaries both with and without RCV, FairVote firmly believes that the inclusion of RCV is a necessary component of the reform. With the strong positive evidence of RCV’s benefits in the 20 U.S. jurisdictions which already use it, and the plethora of academic studies that support RCV, the switch would rectify a number of problems that have eroded America’s confidence in its electoral system. This would allow candidates to focus on policy instead of centering their campaigns on attacking their opponents, both within and outside of their political parties. Ultimately, Unite America’s report shows that a switch to RCV with non-partisan primaries is needed to truly give voters a voice in America.