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The Way We Conduct Primaries is a Problem, and These Campaigns Aim to Fix It

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Created: 04 August, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
6 min read

There is growing consensus among pro-voter reformers that when we discuss comprehensive solutions to provide voters with better elections, primary election reform has to be a part of the conversation. 

As it stands, millions of voters nationwide have no meaningful voice in the elections process because taxpayer-funded partisan primary elections are designed to explicitly give an advantage to the two dominant political parties and their members.

Most elections are safe for one party or the other - either as a result of partisan gerrymandering or the sociopolitical demographics in any given area. Thus, most races are decided in primary elections that force voters to pick between the Republican and Democratic Parties.

It’s a process that marginalizes not only the growing segment of the voting population that chooses to identify independent of any political party, but anyone who belongs in the political minority - denying voters an equal and meaningful say in the political process.

Thus, more and more pro-voter reformers say we need nonpartisan primaries to level the playing field for all voters and candidates.

“I feel excited by the breadth and depths of work being done to change how we do primaries iin this country,” said Open Primaries President John Opdycke, in a podcast interview.

Open Primaries is one of the nation’s preeminent organizations for primary election reform and is currently working with campaigns across the country to pass nonpartisan primary ballot initiatives.

Primary reform is on the ballot in 3 places in 2020 (so far) -- Florida, Alaska, and St. Louis, Missouri, and all three proposals have historic implications that could change the way the country looks at primaries:

  • Amendment 3 in Florida would implement a nonpartisan top-two primary for state executive and legislative elections. If passed, Florida would be the first major battleground state to adopt nonpartisan primaries.
  • Proposition D in St. Louis would implement a top-two primary using approval voting; which would allow all voters, regardless of party affiliation, to pick as many candidates as they want in local elections. If passed, St. Louis would be the first city to combine nonpartisan primaries with this alternative voting method.
  • Ballot Measure 2 in Alaska would implement the nation’s first top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election for state elections. The measure also includes proposals that crack down on dark money in state elections.

There is also a proposed amendment in North Dakota and Arkansas that would implement a top-four primary with ranked choice voting in the general election. The campaign in North Dakota exceeded the signatures it needed to get on the ballot in July, but whether or not it will appear on the ballot is still unknown.

These campaigns, though, only scratch the surface of the long-term efforts that are emerging to change the way people look at primary elections in the US. Former Gehl Foods CEO Katherine Gehl is working on top-5 primaries in Wisconsin and is laying the foundation for a nationwide effort, and efforts just to open current primary elections to independent voters in states like Pennsylvania and Maine.

“The diversity of approaches and tactics is a sign of strength,” said Opdycke. “The level of experimentation, of trial and error, is very positive, and bodes well.”

“This is not a fly-by-night issue. People recognize that these are taxpayer-funded elections and everyone should be able to vote in them, and we need a system that takes into account that the fastest growing segment of the electorate is independent voters. How do you disenfranchise 25 million Americans?”

Challenging the electoral status quo means challenging the mechanisms by which those in power were elected and keep their power. As a result, nonpartisan reform is often challenged by the dominant political parties, who benefit the most from the current system.

In Florida, for instance, both major parties and the state’s attorney general attempted to keep the top-two proposal off the ballot, despite the All Voters Vote campaign collecting the required signatures needed to put the amendment before voters.

Now, there are concerns within the campaign and among supporters that members of the Florida Legislature will attempt to erect roadblocks if the nonpartisan primaries amendment gets over 60% support from voters, which it needs to become law. Legislators did the same after voters approved an amendment that restores voting rights to ex-felons.

Opdycke expects this level of pushback. He believes that if supporters of nonpartisan primaries are lucky enough to get 60% support on the ballot -- a requirement no other state has -- the two-party establishment is going to challenge it “4 days after the election.”

“We are throwing a punch at the political establishment in this country -- the bipartisan establishment,” said Opdycke. “When we get rid of gerrymandering, we’re throwing a punch. When we get rid of closed primaries, we’re throwing a punch. When we enact ranked choice voting, we’re throwing a punch.” 

“They’re going to punch back. In every state in this country, the political establishment is going to punch back.”

The 2020 election, however, is an opportunity for the reform community to make history once again as reformers look at combining reforms to provide a more comprehensive approach to transforming elections.

For the first time, alternative voting methods like ranked choice voting and approval voting are being combined with nonpartisan primaries. For the first time in history, a top-four nonpartisan primary is on the ballot for statewide elections.

The implications this will have on the reform discussion can not be understated. Organizations from across the political spectrum are coming together, facilitated by organizations like the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, to give voters an electoral process that serves them, not a private two-party duopoly.

“If these things can gain traction, it opens up new opportunities around the country in some very significant ways,” said Opdycke. 

He added that these are reforms that can also build bridges -- not just within political demographics, but with communities of color that are disenfranchised by the status quo -- particularly in places like St. Louis, which has a large African-American population that is not sufficiently represented.

“It’s not abstract. There are African-American clergy and elected officials in St. Louis that are now coming on board with this alternative voting effort because they see it as not just as an election reform issue. It’s a voting rights issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It’s a community empowerment issue. That’s very, very important,” said Opdycke.

There is no doubt that history will be made in 2020, and these campaigns will provide a learning experience for nonpartisan reformers across the country. They are a chance to learn from the successes and failures of these campaigns, and to learn where there is still room for improvement as the reform movement looks to the future.

John Opdycke and I talked more about the growing opportunities and challenges still facing the nonpartisan reform space in our podcast interview. Be sure to check back for the latest episode of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers’ official podcast, Unrig It, for the full interview on Wednesday, August 12.

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