When Only Partisan Voters Vote, Only Partisan Candidates Are Elected

Created: 16 June, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
4 min read

In an article published on Friday, June 13, 2014, Vox writer Ezra Klein highlights was is arguably the most important thing to take from Pew's survey on partisanship in America. It is something that has been talked about many times on IVN, and confirmed by research groups like Pew Research: the people who participate most in politics are the most partisan and most ideological.

Why is this so important? Because we cannot simply blame our politicians for the canyon-like partisan division in Washington. Sure, our lawmakers ultimately decide how they are going to legislate, but they are also legislating to appease a base that keeps them in office.

Pew not only found that the partisan divide is widening and political antipathy is deepening, but it also found that party identity is more

consistently aligned with the ideological extremes than ever before. So, as the most partisan members of the Republican and Democratic parties move more to the right or to the left, respectively, the United States is seeing the election of lawmakers who cater to this bloc of voters.

These voters are the most politically active. These are the voters who donate to campaigns, who write letters to lawmakers, who are the most active on social media, and perhaps more importantly: they vote in primaries.

"American politics is increasingly driven by a small group of highly ideological, highly partisan, highly politically engaged people," Klein writes.

The flaw, however, in how most news outlets report on this shift is to say it represents the American people as a whole. Political commentators in the mainstream media, most of whom are partisan talking heads, say that a more divided Congress is simply a reflection of a more polarized American electorate. This is not true.

What the media often fails to educate voters on is the importance of primary elections.

Due to over 200 years of partisan gerrymandering and election laws that put the interests of private organizations over the interests of voters, general elections in most congressional races are considered non-competitive each election year. In other words, these general elections might as well be considered solely a formality because the system is rigged to favor one major party or the other. This makes primary elections a pivotal stage in the election process.


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Just ask U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor how important he thinks primary elections are now.

On Tuesday, he became the first House majority leader in U.S. history to lose his seat in the primary election -- a seat he has retained in previous general elections with almost 60 percent of the vote. So, as the district is heavily Republican, it stands to reason that the winner of the primary election will ultimately win the general election, something that is usually decided by less than 10 percent of the voting population.

National turnout during primary elections averages around 9 percent and historically it is the most partisan voters who participate. So, it doesn't take very many voters to threaten an incumbency, especially if there is an organized grassroots movement that is attempting to oust "establishment" lawmakers. And when candidates are elected by less than 10 percent of the voting population -- sometimes less than 5 percent -- it seems only inevitable that they will legislate to appease whoever this 10 percent is.

It is unreasonable to suggest that 10 percent of the voting population represents the American people as a whole.

A growing number of Americans are choosing not to register with the major parties that have abandoned them -- most of these voters are choosing not to register under a party label at all, major or minor. An even larger percentage of the American public -- a plurality -- self-identifies as independent. A majority of Americans believe neither major party represents them and many voters often end up voting with a "lesser-of-two-evils" mentality

Is the American public becoming more polarized? No. However, the current election system encourages partisanship as it protects the interests of private organizations -- the major political parties -- over the interests of voters. It seeks to divide the American people into factions, when a growing number of Americans don't want to be a member of a political faction. It tells voters that they don't have real choice and that their vote doesn't matter, and if they don't want to waste their vote or if they want full participation then they better associate with a party.

There is no guarantee that election reform will immediately turnaround voter participation numbers, but what is evident is that as partisanship worsens, disenchantment with the current political system grows and that is resulting in lower voter turnouts. People don't want to participate in a system they have no confidence in or they believe they have no real voice in. So, the first step is to give them a system that guarantees they have a full and meaningful voice.

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