Jennifer Rubin: Are primaries the primary problem?

The Unite America Institute, a nonpartisan organization that has spent much effort analyzing the “root causes, effects, and potential solutions to political polarization and partisanship,” has a recommendation on how to fix our political system: Eliminate partisan primaries. This it lays out in a new report, which favors nonpartisan contests decided by “immediate runoffs,” sometimes called ranked-choice voting.ƒ

“Voters who participate in primary elections are often unrepresentative of both their own party, and especially the electorate as a whole, producing similarly unrepresentative outcomes in the candidates they elect,” the report argues. “New polling data from Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, for example, found that the Republican primary electorate that voted for challenger Lauren Boebert over incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton was nearly twice as likely (60%) to identify as ‘very conservative’ compared to general election voters (25%).”

Since so few people vote in partisan primaries, the election outcomes for Congress are essentially decided by the most ideological voters. “Though turnout in the 2020 general election shattered records at 67%, a supermajority of Congress had already been elected in the primaries,” the report found. “As our analysis found, only 10% of eligible Americans cast votes that mattered in partisan primaries that effectively decided 83% of seats.”

Unite America would like nonpartisan primaries akin to Alaska’s, in which the top four candidates, regardless of party affiliation, go on to a general election. The report cites the work of Katherine Gehl, who champions a “Final-Five Voting” system. Writing recently for CNN, she argued: “The purpose of [Final-Five Voting] is not necessarily to change who wins, but to change what the winners are incentivized to do. … Represent a broader swath of your district—not just the thin layer of polarized party-primary voters—or you can expect healthy competition in your next general election.”

Eliminating partisan primaries in favor of ranked-choice voting has been widely supported by scholars seeking to address polarization. “Compromise is politically dangerous, so candidates appeal to their bases,” Larry Diamond argues in a symposium for Politico. “General election voters can’t vote for a third alternative without wasting their vote on a ‘spoiler.’ Switching to ranked-choice voting would enable general election voters to give their first-place votes to independents and moderates who promise to defy this polarizing logic.”

Combining nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting with other reforms—such as greater regulation and transparency of campaign funding, easily available absentee and weekend voting, elimination of partisan gerrymandering (which creates those safe seats) and effectively dumping the electoral college—would all move the country toward a broader, more inclusive environment.

As long as the Republican Party wants a less inclusive and more polarized environment, it is difficult to make progress on these far-reaching reforms. With Republicans controlling both the legislatures and governorships in 23 states, efforts to make voting easier sound like a pipe dream.

The debate over House Resolution 1 should bring the issue of democracy reform front and center. Convincing voters that more democracy is essential in an era of disinformation and hyperpolarized media is proving unsurprisingly difficult.

Democrats have a small window to make progress on multiple aspects of voting reform at both the state and federal level. Sadly, unless and until the GOP is severely thrashed at the polls for its anti-democratic conduct, progress likely will be slow and arduous.•


Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Send comments to

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