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How California-style ‘jungle’ primaries could fix Washington

by Marko Florentino
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The average U.S. House district encompasses about 590,000 people of voting age. How many of them would you expect to cast a ballot for their representative in Congress? Half? A quarter?

In 2020, the representative for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District was effectively chosen by 43,813 people who voted for the winner of the Republican primary — just 8% of eligible voters. In 2018, the representative for New York’s 14th District was chosen by 16,898 people who voted for the winner of the Democratic primary — just 5% of eligible voters. In these districts, one deep red and the other deep blue, the dominant party’s primary was the only election that mattered.

Since their initial victories with those slim totals, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have significantly affected the priorities and direction of their parties, pushing them toward ideological extremes. And both MTG and AOC are beneficiaries of the prevailing partisan primary system, which strongly favors candidates who can appeal to a paltry yet passionate base in a lopsided district.

Nonpartisan primaries like the one California holds Tuesday are a rare exception — one that can show us the way to national political reform.

Greene and Ocasio-Cortez are far from alone. Research by Unite America found that only 8% of voters nationwide cast ballots in the primaries that determined 83% of House contests.

How? First, 83% of congressional districts are, like AOC’s and MTG’s, considered “safe” for one party or the other. While some of this has to do with gerrymandering, most districts are uncompetitive because of the increasing partisan divide between urban areas (which lean Democratic) and rural areas (which lean Republican).

You might think we have a two-party system in America, but in most parts of the country, we really have two one-party systems. In these places, primaries are the only elections of consequence.

Second, very few voters participate in primaries. That’s because 22 states prevent independents from voting in primaries, according to a recent Unite America Institute report, disenfranchising 23.5 million registered independents. And this problem is only getting worse: The share of voters not registered with a major political party has increased nearly 20% since 2010.

Primaries not only determine the winners of most elections but also give disproportionate power to tiny, fringe factions. The result: More of our elected officials are less representative of America and less willing to work with the other party to solve problems.

Most of us take primaries for granted as an unchangeable feature of our politics that has always been with us. But they’re not. California is now one of four states that eschew partisan contests for Congress.

The most powerful solution to the problems of partisan primaries is to simply abolish them. It’s time for the next evolutionary phase in our election system to continue the tradition of periodic improvement since the nation’s founding.

Abolishing partisan primaries upholds two key principles: that all voters, regardless of party, should have the right to cast a ballot for any candidate in any taxpayer-funded election, and that all candidates should have to earn a majority of votes to be elected. Reforming our primaries can give all voters an equal voice and require every candidate to meet the same standard. Most important, it can reward rather than punish politicians for doing what we elected them to do.

The most common means of abolishing partisan primaries so far is by replacing them with nonpartisan primaries, often referred to as “blanket” or “jungle primaries.” In a nonpartisan primary, all voters participate in a single primary in which all the candidates are listed on the ballot with their self-identified party affiliation. The top finishers advance to the general election regardless of party and compete for majority support.

The road to primary reform doesn’t require federal legislation or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it can have a transformational impact without happening in all 50 states. In fact, I believe it will dramatically improve the workings of Congress if something like six more states abolish partisan primaries by 2026, bringing the total to 10. And voter-led campaigns in several states, including Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, could pass nonpartisan primaries with ballot initiatives this fall.

With 20 senators and a few dozen representatives thereby freed from the political fringes and able to form new coalitions to actually govern, I think we would have the critical mass to begin to address major challenges that seem unsolvable today.

A democracy that is controlled by extremes at the expense of the majority, offering division instead of solutions, can’t endure indefinitely. And the self-reinforcing cycle of hyperpartisanship won’t end on its own. We should judge proposals to change course not against perfection but rather against the status quo.

Abolishing partisan primary elections isn’t a panacea. But California and others have shown it’s a feasible and effective means of beginning to reverse our ever more poisonous polarization.

Nick Troiano is the author of The Primary Solution: Rescuing Our Democracy From the Fringes,” from which this is adapted, and the executive director of Unite America, a philanthropic venture fund that invests in nonpartisan election reform.

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