Magazine article State Legislatures

The Primary Puzzle: In This Era of Ideological Extremes and Intense Partisanship, What Role Do Primaries Play in Shaping Election Results?

Magazine article State Legislatures

The Primary Puzzle: In This Era of Ideological Extremes and Intense Partisanship, What Role Do Primaries Play in Shaping Election Results?

Article excerpt

Where primary elections are concerned, there's more than one way to skin a cat. And for years, political thinkers have debated what effect the design of a state's primary has on electoral results.

In this age of sharp partisan polarization-when primaries often determine who occupies the seat more than the general election does--the question of how primaries can shape results has become increasingly urgent.

High-profile congressional upsets in recent primaries--House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia and Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi (although he later squeaked out a win in the runoff)--have also drawn attention to the debate over which type of primary best reflects the will of the voters.

Some political reformers see opening up primaries as a way to curb the influence of the parties' ideological extremes, which tend to dominate in closed primaries that are open only to registered party members.

But does wresting primaries from the control of only registered party members actually result in the election of candidates with more moderate views? Research suggests it's, at best, an open question. Those who have studied the phenomenon say the hard evidence is under-whelming.

A Variety of Options

States have a range of possibilities when deciding on what kind of primary election to use. At one end of the spectrum is the closed primary, which permits only registered party members to vote.

On the other extreme is the open primary that allows all voters to cast a ballot in the primary of their choice, regardless of their own affiliation. Some states use this method across the board, while others use it only in certain circumstances. In some states, voters have to publicly declare which primary they're voting in, while in others, they can make the decision in the privacy of the voting booth.

Then there is the "top-two" system, which generally puts all candidates on a common primary ballot, with only the top two advancing to the general election. Washington in 2008, and California in 2012, were the first states to institute this new format when voters approved ballot measures.

Louisiana uses a variation of the top two in the general election, where all candidates are listed on the same ballot. Those who receive 50 percent or more of the votes win immediately, but if no one gets 50 percent, the top two finishers face off in a runoff.

There are other hybrid formats as well. Semi-closed primaries occupy a middle ground by requiring party members to vote only in their party's primary, but allowing independents to choose either.

For reformers, the appeal of open primaries is clear: They hold the possibility of diluting the power of each party's most active (and often most ideologically hard-core) members by allowing other (and presumably more moderate) voters to have a say in who runs in the general election, when turnout tends to be highest.

Low Turnout

In 2012, the number of votes cast in U.S. House general elections was more than four times higher than the number of votes cast in House primaries. In U.S. Senate races, 3.7 times more votes were cast in general elections than in primaries.

This year, turnout for primaries also appears weak: As of midsummer, in the 25 states that had held primaries, voter turnout was 14.8 percent, down from 18.3 percent in 2010, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

The top-two format has the potential to increase primary turn out as well, since it ensures that voters in heavily Republican or Democratic districts will have at least two candidates from which to choose, rather than just one. So far, the top-two system has not increased primary turnouts in California and Washington, but experts say it's still too early to judge.

Efforts to Change

In the last two years, efforts were made in 19 states to change primary systems, either in the legislature or by ballot. …

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