Response: The Trouble with Primaries

AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File

Primary voters mark ballots at a polling place in the library at the Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School in Los Angeles. 

In dark times it is especially important to recognize that change is possible and that efforts to make American democracy more equitable and effective can succeed. We are grateful to Drew Penrose for pointing to the many places in our country where the kinds of voting reforms we are advocating have been proposed or are already in use. We also applaud the work of FairVote in analyzing, publicizing, and advocating for voting reforms of the sort we discussed. 

We remain concerned that even with ranked-choice voting (RCV) in multi-member districts (as in H.R. 3057), separate party primaries would continue to empower candidates who appeal to the partisan fringes, the affluent, and organized interest groups. Partisan primaries inherently disfavor candidates with broad appeal to independents and members of the other party. Moreover, low, biased turnout in primaries can make the results unrepresentative even of rank-and-file party members. 

Yet even if we were to retain partisan primaries, a general election with multiple winners selected by RCV and multiple candidates from both major parties (along with candidates from third, fourth, or no party) would be a huge step forward. Such a system would make it easier for voters to find candidates who are more reflective of their political views, and would generate congressional delegations (or the equivalent at other levels of government) that more closely reflect the distribution of views within the district.

We wholeheartedly agree with Miles Rapoport that it is crucial to curtail the corrupting effects of big money in politics. In our book Democracy in America?, we advocate using public money to counterbalance the flood of big private contributions. Best, we believe, would be for each citizen to receive an equal mount of public money in the form of  “democracy vouchers” that the citizen can pass on to any parties or candidates of her or his choice.

We also agree that parties and activists are crucial to democracy. We need parties to organize governance, help select potential leaders, mobilize voters, and clarify voters’ choices.  Activists are critical for providing the energy that leads to political change, especially for educating and persuading the general public to think in new ways—just as the civil rights, women’s, and gay rights movements have succeeded in doing.

We do not, however, believe that our major parties or their donor and activist bases should have monopolies over the nomination of candidates for office. Such monopolies have especially pernicious effects with today’s “asymmetric polarization,” in which the Republican Party regularly takes extreme positions that are badly out of touch with most Americans, and enacts those policies by electing extremist House members through low-turnout primaries in one-party districts (and extremist senators in rural states that are overrepresented in the Senate).

We are committed to democracy even if that means not everything goes our way. But progressives should note that one likely result of the reforms we propose would be to defang the donor—and activist-powered tea party contingent and push the Republican Party leftward toward the opinions of the majority of Americans—especially on crucial economic issues involving taxes, regulation, jobs, wages, and health care. Effects on the Democrats—whose donors and activists sometimes push in opposite directions—are less clear. In conjunction with campaign-finance reform, however, the House electoral changes we propose would likely nudge the Democratic Party away from dependence on Wall Street and Silicon Valley donors who are okay with social liberalism but resist economic egalitarianism.

When parties with nominating power are captured by advocacy groups, big money, or organized interests, or become disproportionately responsive to highly unrepresentative activists like the tea party types, ordinary voters lose out. It would be extremely difficult to achieve an expanded electorate and substantially higher rates of voter turnout in primary elections (ideas are welcome.) Even if that could be done, partisan primaries will always, by design, underrepresent the preferences of nonpartisan citizens and contribute to party polarization. 

Eliminating primary elections is not tantamount to eliminating political parties. We expect that parties would continue to recruit and support candidates, promote a political agenda, and organize representatives in legislatures. Parties continue to play an important role in states with nonpartisan “top two” primaries like Washington and California. (In these states, candidates are not formally endorsed by a party but can nevertheless list their party affiliations and use endorsements from party leaders and others to inform and attract voters.) 

As we note in our article, however, “top two” primaries—or even primaries with RCV—leave important problems unsolved. Eliminating primaries altogether and offering voters a wider choice of candidates in a higher-visibility, higher-turnout, RCV November general election would give more voice to more voters, including those who don’t identify with a major party.  Adding proportional representation through multi-member districts and STV would further strengthen the diversity and representativeness of “the people’s House.” 

We fully agree with Miles Rapoport that the reforms we propose cannot, by themselves, cure what ails American democracy. We also need to limit the power of big money in elections, address the problems of lobbying and the revolving door, expand voting rights, reform the internal rules of the House, and democratize the Senate (we discuss these and other reforms in Democracy in America?). There is no single silver bullet, but we believe that the reforms of House elections proposed in our article would help move our country in a more inclusive, responsive, egalitarian—in short, a more democratic—direction.

You may also like