Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

primary-voting

(Photo: Denise Cross Photography/Flickr)

How Can We Fix the Broken Primary Election System?

• July 07, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Denise Cross Photography/Flickr)

A look at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s comprehensive consideration of the issue.

We’ve all heard plenty of complaints in recent years that national and state legislatures have simply grown too polarized to govern effectively. Democrats and Republicans not only can’t work together, they see each other as enemies and threats to the country. Thanks to this polarization, the country can’t solve the problems it faces.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has produced a comprehensive document aimed at addressing this issue. (Disclosure: I served as a consultant on this project during an event last year.) To its credit, the Center isn’t pushing any magic bullets. There is no one simple reform that will substantially reduce polarization while allowing the United States to remain a democracy. It is, however, pushing a series of reforms that, enacted together, could potentially have some kind of impact.

Given how many of us decline to even join parties in the first place, should we be encouraging, no less mandating, that such people vote in party nomination contests?

One issue area that particularly drew my attention was that of primary election reform. As I’ve written previously, many reformers look to open primaries as a tool for reducing the partisanship of elected officials, but such reforms have proven pretty ineffective. Changing who may participate in a state’s primary elections seems unrelated to the partisanship of the elected officials it produces.

Why is this? In part, it’s because the activists, major donors, officeholders, and other party elites who tend to influence the outcomes of primary elections don’t just disappear when those elections are opened up to moderate voters. They remain influential, and they know how to allocate the endorsements, funding, expertise, and other resources important to winning elections to make sure that the candidates they like—pretty loyal partisans, usually—prevail in the primaries. But another reason is that people with weak party attachments (self described moderates, independents, and so forth) who do not follow politics closely tend not to participate in primaries even if they’re allowed to. Opening up a primary does little to change what the electorate actually looks like.

But what if such reforms could be combined with reforms that boost voter turnout and bring more moderates to the polls? That’s what these reforms (as helpfully summarized by Niraj Chokshi) seek to do. The primary reforms propose to:

1. Have a uniform congressional primary day across the United States.

2. Boost primary election turnout from around 20 percent today to 30 percent by 2020 and 35 percent by 2026.

3. Open up participation to independents or members of other parties.

4. Prohibit conventions and caucuses, which are very low-particpation methods of nominating candidates.

The first reform—the uniform primary day—could potentially boost turnout simply by increasing the nationwide media attention on primaries. Beyond that, though, how do we raise voter turnout by 15 points over where it currently is? Well, there are a variety of methods; it depends what we’re comfortable with. Making Election Day (even for primaries) a holiday could work. Allowing same-day voter registration might work as well, as would eliminating voter registration altogether. So would mandatory voting (in which you pay a fine for not voting). It’s hard to see this happening in an environment where many states are making voting more difficult, of course, but there’s no shortage of options.

This combination of reforms could potentially mitigate polarization, at least slightly. But there are some more normative questions here that strike me as important. Chief among these: What is the purpose of a primary? Ostensibly, it is the selection of party nominees. Is it really appropriate for independents and Democrats to be picking the nominee of the Republican Party? (I’ll bet Chris McDaniels has one or two opinions on that question.) And even if it isn’t appropriate, does a need to reduce polarization outweigh the rights of party members to select their own nominees?

More broadly, do we have an obligation to participate in primaries? We could certainly make the case that voting in a general election is an obligation of citizenship. But given how many of us decline to even join parties in the first place, should we be encouraging, no less mandating, that such people vote in party nomination contests?

It’s encouraging that the conversation is moving from “Polarization sucks” to “What can we do?” It seems to me that the next place for it to go is “What should we do?”

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.