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The Case for a National Primary

With the way things are currently structured, most voters don’t participate in choosing the candidates that ultimately go on to represent them. But there’s a relatively easy fix.
A 2008 Washington state Democratic caucus held in a school lunchroom. (Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons)

A 2008 Washington state Democratic caucus held in a school lunchroom. (Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikimedia Commons)

In all of the debate and punditry over the extent of polarization in American politics today and the abhorrence with which voters view Congress and many of their governors, one factor seems to be missing from the discussion: How little input the American people currently have into their choices of candidates. Every American registered with a political party, and in some states even those who are not, has the ability to weigh in on whom the nominees for the general election will be—but few people actually do. One major reason is that few voters even know when the primary election will take place.

This year, there are 36 gubernatorial primaries scheduled, 33 of which will be held before Labor Day. In fact, several high-profile gubernatorial primaries, including those in Texas, Illinois, and Ohio, already passed. In addition, of course, congressional primaries also will be held in each of the 50 states—many while kids are out of school and families are away on summer vacation.

In the Texas gubernatorial primary in March, just over 14 percent of registered voters cast a ballot (barely 10 percent of the voting-age population). In Illinois, a state in which the incumbent governor has a job approval rating of just 31 percent, only 1.2 million out of more than seven million registered voters participated in the primary. While voter turnout in both states was down slightly from previous gubernatorial primaries, these figures are pretty consistent with the norm—and these states are not exceptional.

Even in the 2012 presidential primaries, which attracted far more attention than off-year congressional and gubernatorial contests, participation ranged from a low of 0.3 percent of eligible voters (Wyoming's Republican caucus) to 31 percent of eligible voters (North Carolina’s presidential primary).

Low voter turnout in primary elections leads to a situation that no democratic theorist desires: Those most likely to vote in such elections are highly educated, wealthy, politically active homeowners.

Several factors contribute to such low turnout. One, obviously is that in most primaries, voters can't choose based simply on the candidate’s party identification; instead, they are forced to pick from among relatively similar candidates vying for the party nomination. This makes things particularly tough for the average voter, who relies on their party identification to help determine their vote. There are things that make up for this deficiency though—particularly news coverage and other sources of information about candidates that help voters sift through the positions of those running with less effort than they would otherwise have to expend.

But the primary schedule itself poses an institutional obstacle to voting: People are asked to go to the polls on a date they don’t ordinarily associate with an election. This year’s gubernatorial and congressional primaries span from March to September, with no apparent rhyme or reason for their chosen date, which creates a multitude of problems. Major national news outlets rarely report when a primary election will be held, particularly since that date varies widely by state. And when local news outlets do focus on a primary, the viewer might just as easily be consuming information intended for a state they don’t live in, since media markets are not set by political boundaries.

In Nevada, for example, most rural voters fall into the Salt Lake City, Utah, media market, but Nevada’s primary is being held on June 10 and Utah’s is two weeks later, on June 24. The South Carolina gubernatorial primary is on June 10, but North Carolina’s has already passed (May 6) and Georgia’s is on a different date (June 16). These three states share several media markets. This leaves voters in a quandary. Not only do they have to sift through candidates running low-budget campaigns that receive little major news coverage, but they also have to figure out and remember when the election is taking place.

Low voter turnout in primary elections leads to a situation that no democratic theorist desires: Those most likely to vote in such elections are highly educated, wealthy, politically active homeowners—and, perhaps most importantly, they are also very ideological. The voters most able to sort through the differences between the candidates and who feel compelled to vote in the primary tend to be those at the ideological poles who are passionate about their sometimes extreme positions. Adding insult to injury, candidates exacerbate the effect by strategically targeting "super voters"—people who vote religiously in primary elections. This means that residents who don’t have a proven track record of voting in primaries never get a phone call or a knock on their door asking them to vote, and they rarely receive any materials about the candidates.

The end result of this bias in turnout produces candidates chosen by a minority of voters who are not representative of the actual make-up of the country or even of the state they are supposed to represent. But these are the candidates that voters must pick between on the November ballot—that is, if there is even a competitive general election.

It’s unlikely that the polarized news coverage of politics is going to change any time soon. Nor is it likely that the Supreme Court is going to change its ruling concerning who gets to fund elections. But making primaries more accessible to the average voter could go a long way toward producing more moderate candidates who are more representative of their constituents. The most effective of these changes would be to have one day when the whole country gets to weigh in on the candidates. Even if it took place during the summer, a unified national primary would most likely drastically increase the level of news coverage of candidates and allow non-partisan groups to run get-out-the-vote drives nationally, instead of having to run costly local date-specific campaigns.

Such a change would also have a positive impact on the selection process for presidential candidates. No longer would New Hampshire residents receive well more than their fair share of attention and campaign spending from presidential hopefuls while other states risked being stripped of their convention delegates by the political parties for scheduling their primary too early.

The creation of the “Super Tuesday” presidential primary in 1976 was an attempt by a number of states to achieve a relative degree of equality between their voters and elevate their importance in the process. But Super Tuesday is barely super anymore. In 2012, only 11 states voted on March 6. While more states use the first Tuesday in March than any other date, the number is hardly enough to warrant disproportionate attention from the national media. And given how few states vote on that day, the extra attention paid to Super Tuesday would just as likely have confused voters in other states as helped voters for whom Super Tuesday is applicable. This year, there is not a single date I could point to on which more states are holding their primaries than any other. In fact, Tennessee, eschewing national tradition, is holding its election on August 7—a Thursday instead of a Tuesday.

Ironically, the Progressive Era reforms that led to the implementation of the primary system we have today were intended to increase participation by voters in the selection of candidates. Unfortunately, like many such reforms, it led instead to a less-active, less participatory electorate in which ideologues who are much more extreme than the leaders of the two national political parties often control the choice of candidates.