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How Can We Fix the Broken Primary Election System?

A look at the Bipartisan Policy Center's comprehensive consideration of the issue.
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(Photo: Denise Cross Photography/Flickr)

(Photo: Denise Cross Photography/Flickr)

We've all heard plenty of complaints in recent years that national and state legislatures have simply grown too polarized to govern effectively. Democrats and Republicans not only can't work together, they see each other as enemies and threats to the country. Thanks to this polarization, the country can't solve the problems it faces.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has produced a comprehensive document aimed at addressing this issue. (Disclosure: I served as a consultant on this project during an event last year.) To its credit, the Center isn't pushing any magic bullets. There is no one simple reform that will substantially reduce polarization while allowing the United States to remain a democracy. It is, however, pushing a series of reforms that, enacted together, could potentially have some kind of impact.

Given how many of us decline to even join parties in the first place, should we be encouraging, no less mandating, that such people vote in party nomination contests?

One issue area that particularly drew my attention was that of primary election reform. As I've written previously, many reformers look to open primaries as a tool for reducing the partisanship of elected officials, but such reforms have proven pretty ineffective. Changing who may participate in a state's primary elections seems unrelated to the partisanship of the elected officials it produces.

Why is this? In part, it's because the activists, major donors, officeholders, and other party elites who tend to influence the outcomes of primary elections don't just disappear when those elections are opened up to moderate voters. They remain influential, and they know how to allocate the endorsements, funding, expertise, and other resources important to winning elections to make sure that the candidates they like—pretty loyal partisans, usually—prevail in the primaries. But another reason is that people with weak party attachments (self described moderates, independents, and so forth) who do not follow politics closely tend not to participate in primaries even if they're allowed to. Opening up a primary does little to change what the electorate actually looks like.

But what if such reforms could be combined with reforms that boost voter turnout and bring more moderates to the polls? That's what these reforms (as helpfully summarized by Niraj Chokshi) seek to do. The primary reforms propose to:

1. Have a uniform congressional primary day across the United States.

2. Boost primary election turnout from around 20 percent today to 30 percent by 2020 and 35 percent by 2026.

3. Open up participation to independents or members of other parties.

4. Prohibit conventions and caucuses, which are very low-particpation methods of nominating candidates.

The first reform—the uniform primary day—could potentially boost turnout simply by increasing the nationwide media attention on primaries. Beyond that, though, how do we raise voter turnout by 15 points over where it currently is? Well, there are a variety of methods; it depends what we're comfortable with. Making Election Day (even for primaries) a holiday could work. Allowing same-day voter registration might work as well, as would eliminating voter registration altogether. So would mandatory voting (in which you pay a fine for not voting). It's hard to see this happening in an environment where many states are making voting more difficult, of course, but there's no shortage of options.

This combination of reforms could potentially mitigate polarization, at least slightly. But there are some more normative questions here that strike me as important. Chief among these: What is the purpose of a primary? Ostensibly, it is the selection of party nominees. Is it really appropriate for independents and Democrats to be picking the nominee of the Republican Party? (I'll bet Chris McDaniels has one or two opinions on that question.) And even if it isn't appropriate, does a need to reduce polarization outweigh the rights of party members to select their own nominees?

More broadly, do we have an obligation to participate in primaries? We could certainly make the case that voting in a general election is an obligation of citizenship. But given how many of us decline to even join parties in the first place, should we be encouraging, no less mandating, that such people vote in party nomination contests?

It's encouraging that the conversation is moving from "Polarization sucks" to "What can we do?" It seems to me that the next place for it to go is "What should we do?"