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#25: Abolish Primary Elections

August 26, 2010, 12:00 AM
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“Primary elections have turned out to be one of the causes that contribute to the extreme polarization of politics today,” says Richard Pildes, professor of constitutional law at the New York University School of Law. “The people who show up for primary elections tend to be much more extreme, much more the activist wings of the political parties."

Moreover, voter turnout in primaries is low—dipping in many states below a quarter of registered voters, which itself is a fraction of the total eligible voters.  This adds up, says Pildes, to a system where hard-line partisan voters wield disproportionate sway during primaries.  In the general election “you often have a choice between an extreme conservative and an extreme liberal and the center gets kind of squeezed out through the two-stage process of voting that we now have,” he says.

That's why Pildes believes we should end primary elections and replace them with a system of instant-runoff voting where multiple candidates from different parties run in the same race against one another. Such systems have already been implemented in cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco.

In one version of this system, voters show up once for a general election and rank their candidates in order of preference.  If none receives a majority, a portion of candidates with the least votes is removed. The ballots are then recounted, now with the second choice counted for those whose first choice was removed. This is repeated until a candidate gets a majority.

Instant runoff voting, says Pildes, “collapses the primary election and the general election into a single event.  So everybody only has to show up only once.”  A broadened electorate with such a system, he says, would bolster a political center, encourage moderates and centrists to run for office and encourage such politicians to pursue policy across partisan differences once elected. Moreover, political candidates are less beholden to the more extreme factions of their parties, and could more effectively court moderates from both parties.

The Takeaway

Primary elections are currently weighted toward candidates from the extreme wings of their respective parties, often resulting in general elections where moderate voices are shut out and voters are compelled to choose between extreme viewpoints. Primaries should be replaced with an instant runoff voting system, based on listing candidates by preference, or a single, open primary to establish a two-candidate general election. 

Why We Should Reject This

“I don’t think that primary elections are the major reason for polarization,” says Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University.  “Democratic and Republican primary voters are not very different in their views from Democratic and Republican general election voters.”

Abramowitz says that the more engaged in politics voters are, "the more interested they are, the more knowledgeable they are, the more active they are, the more polarized they are.” He says that ending primary elections will not change that.

“The reality is primaries are not going to be abolished,” he said. “The whole thrust of the nomination process, the changes that have been going on over time, has been to increase the number primaries to increase the role of the public to allow rank-and-file party members greater involvement.  To try and cut them out of the process I think would be very unpopular.”

More Resources

—Richard Pildes, "Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America."

—Alan Abramowitz, "Don’t Blame Primary Voters for Polarization.

Public Policy Institute of California report on "top-two-vote-getter" TTVG Open Primaries, as were adopted by California's Prop 14 in June.

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#25: Abolish Primary Elections

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