Introducing The Public Primary: Protecting the Rights of Voters While Giving Them More Choices

Author: Fair Vote
Created: 07 April, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
5 min read

FairVote believes that every vote should matter and be heard in every public election. The fundamental goal of any primary election system should be to help foster a general election that will include meaningful choices, real competition, and fair representation. That said, a primary election system funded by the taxpayers ideally will allow voters real choices among an array of candidates, encourage both positive and inclusive primary campaigns, and elect or advance winners that are reflective of as many voters as possible.

I wanted to highlight a new proposal: the “ Public Primary.” First proposed to us last year by Chad Peace of the Independent Voter Project as an “all independent primary,” the idea has taken more shape in the succeeding months. Chad now calls it a Public Primary, as do we. Here’s how it could work:

  • Maintain without change all current ways to get onto the general election ballot. If a party holds a closed primary contest, it could continue to do so. Ballot access for independents and minor parties would be preserved.
  • Establish a new “ Public Primary” to take place simultaneously with the party primaries that would be open to any candidate (including some who might be seeking a party nomination) and any voter (including some who might be voting in a party primary).
  • Advance the winner of the Public Primary to the general election. If any candidate won a party primary, that candidate would have to accept the party nomination and be eliminated from the Public Primary before running the ranked choice voting tally.
  • Have candidates on the general election ballot list any nomination they received, just as now. The candidate securing a spot on the general election from the Public Primary would also have the option to indicate a preferred party. So the ballot might read “Jill Lopez, Public Primary. Prefers Republican.”
  • Use ranked choice voting in both the Public Primary and the general election to accommodate the expected increase in voter choice in those contests. A state ideally would use ranked choice voting within party primaries as well.

When we evaluated the idea last year as part of our project assessing the impact of 37 structural reforms, both FairVote and our participating scholars suggested it would have relatively low impact. At that point, we interpreted its main value as voters always being able to participate in a government-funded primary even if unaffiliated or registered with a party not holding a nominating contest. But my broader definition of the Public Primary proposal suggests it could have a far more significant impact.

Consider the U.S. Senate race in Delaware in 2010. That year, Republican U.S. House Member Mike Castle sought his party’s nomination for an open seat and would have been favored in November if winning the nomination. However, Castle was upset by Christine O’Donnell, a strong backer of the Tea Party, who then was handily defeated in November by the Democratic nominee. If a Public Primary had been available, Castle certainly would have contested it, and likely been its winner – giving him an alternate route to the general election ballot. Similarly, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski would not have needed to mount a write-in campaign after being upset by Joe Miller in the Republican primary in 2010. Former House majority leader Eric Cantor might have had another chance to win in Virginia in 2014 after losing his House primary.

The Public Primary is not designed to reward one viewpoint over another, of course. If Cantor had won the Republican nomination in 2014, for example, Dave Brat might have secured a spot in November through the Public Primary and presented voters with an additional choice.

I see the Public Primary as achieving significant pro-democracy goals, including:

  • Every voter could vote in a primary contest, unlike with the status quo in which a growing number of Americans are excluded from closed primaries due to their choice of party affiliation.
  • Parties would maintain their freedom of association, and no candidate currently securing a place on the November ballot would be denied that opportunity.
  • The general election ballot would usually have a significant number of additional candidates for voters to consider in November, when turnout is higher and more representative.
  • Ranked choice voting would avoid split votes and “spoiled elections” for all races with more than two candidates, giving voters greater freedom to consider their favorite candidates and encouraging candidates to reach out beyond their base.

Certainly, the Public Primary is much more in keeping with the traditions of our founders and the first century of our elections than proposals like the Top Two primary that address some problems with our status quo at the expense of limiting voter choice to two in November. As we explain in amicus briefs to the Supreme Court last year in cases challenging closed primaries in New Jersey and the top two primary in California, the United States is virtually alone in paying for party primaries, which began in the early 1900s. For most of the 19th century, we also did not have a government-printed ballot. In other words, for much our nation’s history, the government did not sanction parties, there was very limited voter registration and there was no question of “ballot access” in November. Rather, parties were private associations that brought people together to organize politically to recruit candidates, nominate them and mobilize voters to support them. They typically asked voters in the general election to use the ballots that the party created that only listed the candidates they supported.

Having the government today use its power to limit who runs in November and to deny showing association on the ballot is problematic, and undercuts representative democracy when it limits voter choice and weakens the right of political association. The Public Primary avoids those pitfalls.

. Please send any suggestions and comments to rob fairvote org.

We’ll be continuing to develop and hone the Public Primary proposal this month before formally recommending it to our Board of Directors as an “innovation” alongside other FairVote-backed proposals to revamp our primaries such as the Top Four primary and the open ticket system

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Editor's note: This article, written by Rob Richie, originally published on Fair Vote's blog, and has been slightly modified for publication on IVN. 

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