Abolish Primary Elections

Question: Why should we abolish primary elections?

Richard Pildes: Well let’s talk first about the problem to which abolishing primaries might be the solution.  The problem is the hyper-polarized nature of politics in America.  Not just today, but over the last 20-25 years or so.  And primary elections have turned out to be one of the causes that contribute to the extreme polarization of politics today and it’s one of the few things that contributes to polarization in politics that we might actually be able to do something about by making an institutional change.  

So, let me remind people of the history of primary elections.  Initially, they came in, in the early 20th Century as a way of taking power from the political bosses and putting it in the hands of “the people.”  And for many decades, that seemed like a good solution.  The problem is that, it’s hard enough to get voters to show up on general election day and it’s even harder to get them to show up on primary election day, as time has gone on.  And what happens is, the people who show up for primary elections tend to be much more extreme, much more the activist wings of the political parties and it’s a much, much, much smaller turnout; a much smaller electorate.  

So primary elections tend to be one of the ways in which we end up with either an extreme right or extreme left candidate.  And, if you notice, primary elections are where lots of the moderates are driven out of politics.  So if one thinks that rebuilding a center in American politics would be a desirable thing, you know; finding a way to encourage moderates and centrists to run for office, to get elected to office; finding people who are more willing to pursue policy agendas across partisan differences. If we’re going to try to cut through the extreme polarized nature of our politics, finding ways to get candidates seeking office and candidates elected to office who are more likely to reflect the center of the country is the place to focus.  And if we eliminated primary elections, there is some reason to think we could make a dent in this problem. 

Now, what would replace primary elections if we eliminate them, I’m not in any way an anti-democrat; I’ve spent my career studying elections and democracy.  And we’re not looking for a return to say, “party bosses” picking candidates, but there are systems of voting that allow people to show up just once and vote for candidates that basically get us what we want out of primaries and get us the general election at the same time.  And let me describe the main system that does this.  It’s called instant runoff voting.  A number of cities already use this in the United States and we could expand the use to the state level for state elections and congressional elections and senate elections.  

Basically, in an instant runoff voting, the voters show up once for the general election and they rank candidates in order.  You know, the put a one, a two, a three, a four in favor... in the rank order of their preferences.  And basically the counting system, which is a little complicated to explain, ultimately figures out who is the dominant preference of the voters. Or if you’re choosing two candidates to go into a general election, if you want a second election, this system can pick out the top two vote-getters.  

But the big idea behind something like instant-runoff voting to put it in kind of easy-to-understand terms, is it collapses the primary election and the general election into a single event.  So everybody has to show up only once.  The candidates are listed on the ballot; they can have the party label.  There might be maybe three or four Republicans, three or four Democrats.  Maybe candidates from other parties.  As I say, you rank them in the order you prefer.  You only rank as many candidates as you have a view about.  And the vote-counting system then just figures out how to choose the winning candidate based on how people have selected their votes.  

What makes this idea dangerous?

Richard Pildes: First of all, anytime you’re talking about making any change to the system of elections in the United States—there’s tremendous inertia and resistance and risk aversion about that.  And maybe understandably, because we take pride in the fact that we’ve had continuous elections for longer than any other democracy.  Apart from the Civil War, we’ve had tremendous political stability.  You know, people are rightly concerned about any change to the basic way we run elections.  That’s one thing that makes it dangerous.  

The second thing that makes it dangerous is that there’s a concern people are going to have that you are taking away their right to vote.  You know, the idea of abolishing an election, or a primary election, is scary—and understandably scary.  And the fact that you’re replacing it with a different kind of election, you know, ought to mitigate that fear, but there’s no question that there would be tremendous anxiety about the idea of doing that.  

The third thing that makes it dangerous is that all systems of voting have advantages and disadvantages.  There’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.  So you’re inevitably making trade-offs.  And one of the concerns about instant-runoff voting is that people depend a lot on the clarity of the party label when they’re deciding who to vote for.  If you have instant-runoff voting where, say, the candidates can identify as a Republican or a Democrat, they don’t have to be selected by the party or by the party’s voters.  They just put that Republican or Democrat next to their name on the ballot.... then maybe they’re not really representative of Republican or Democratic Party views, maybe it confuses voters.  So there are ways of dealing with that issue, but that’s another kind of concern, or reason that people would find the idea dangerous.

Recorded August 18, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

Primaries were conceived to keep power out of the hands of political party bosses, but now they contribute to our country’s hyper-polarization and should be abolished.

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