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Why Some Trump Critics Survived This Primary Season and Some Didn’t
Ranked choice voting and other electoral reforms are showing the way to depolarize American politics
A record high number of voters (74%) today believe our country is on the wrong track, and Democrats and Republicans view each other more negatively than ever before. Over 40% even predict civil war is “likely” within the decade. And all this comes on the heels of the events of Jan. 6 nearly two years ago.
There are many explanations for how the country arrived at this dangerous point. But one big one is the perverse incentives in our current electoral system, especially the partisan primaries that reward candidates who put party loyalty over the national interest. The primary season that will wrap up next week is likely to put in place one of the most divided and least accountable Congresses in living memory. But it also offers a glimmer of hope from states such as Alaska that have introduced promising electoral reforms to select more representative candidates. They could show the country a way out of its current partisan downward spiral.
Thanks to the latest round of redistricting, both parties have concentrated their voters such that more than 90% of congressional districts now lean either heavily Democratic or Republican. Combine such gerrymandering with partisan primaries and you have an uncompetitive democracy in which candidates who win the primary election of the dominant party become a shoe-in for the general election. This is especially the case in a first-past-the-post system in which a winner needs most—not the majority—of votes. This problem is so widespread that, in the last election, only 10% of eligible voters nationally decided nearly 83% of Congressional seats in 2020, an analysis conducted by Unite America found. The trend for this election cycle is tracking to be even more lopsided.
This means millions of voters are being locked out of meaningfully participating in elections for their representatives just because of their party affiliation. But even this doesn’t fully capture the depth of the problem. Primaries are usually low-turnout events in which voters who show up tend to be the most ideologically motivated. This rewards candidates who are willing to cater to the most extreme elements in their midst, engendering negative polarization.
Consider the ways in which this phenomenon has contributed to America’s current crisis: Ten House Republicans stood up to former President Trump and voted to impeach him after his attempt to overturn the last presidential election. Four of them decided to not even run again this year because they didn’t want to endure a bruising primary battle with a Trump-backed MAGA candidate. Four lost their primaries, including Reps. Liz Cheney and Peter Meijer. Only two—Reps. Dan Newhouse and David Valadao—won.
What was the difference? Wyoming, Cheney’s state, and Michigan, Meijer’s state, both have partisan primaries. They’re not as strict as the nine “closed” primary states that limit participation to registered Democrats and Republicans—but they still require voters to select either a Democratic ballot or a Republican ballot to participate. By contrast, Washington, Newhouse’s state, and California, Valadao’s state, use nonpartisan primaries, which allow all eligible voters, regardless of party, to vote in primary elections in which all the qualified candidates in a given race—Democratic, Republican, or otherwise—appear next to each other on the ballot. (In Washington and California, the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election.)
In a nonpartisan primary, all the voters get a say—they all get to participate in screening their primary choices.
By contrast, in Cheney’s and Meijer’s elections—in the majority of states, actually—only a select group gets to participate. As a result of this, as well as the increase in “partisan sorting” and heavily gerrymandered districts, this voting bloc often chooses general election candidates that are not representative of the full electorate.
Washington’s and California’s “top-two” systems were implemented within the last 15 years, meaning that the window for researching the reforms’ effects with sufficient data is just now opening. One paper from the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute found that newly elected members of the House from California, Washington and Louisiana (which also doesn’t have party primaries) were, on average, 18% less ideologically extreme than those elected in other primary states. That’s another way of saying these representatives were, in fact, more “representative” of the general public.
The desire for a more representative politics is pushing more people in more states to look into such reforms. Alaska provides the most promising example yet of solving the primary problem.
In 2020, a majority of Alaskans voted to replace partisan primaries with a “top-four” primary in which the top four candidates, not just the top two, as in Washington and California, advance to the general. In addition, it implemented a ranked choice voting (RCV) system in the general elections. (Under ranked choice, as the name suggests, voters rank the candidates according to their preference. The candidate who gets the lowest amount of first-choice support is eliminated and the second choice of his or her voters is counted as their first choice and assigned to the relevant candidates till one candidate tallies a majority.)
Alaska’s top-four option provides voters with an even better opportunity to choose a slate of general election candidates that is broadly reflective of the populace than Washington’s and California’s top two. And ranked choice in general elections ensures that a candidate earns majority support of the voting public to get past the finish line—not just a plurality, as generally happens in first-past-the-post elections.
In the past, 60% of Alaskans who declined to register with either major party were locked out of Alaska’s primary process; Republicans did not allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primary although Democrats did. So, too many voters either couldn’t or didn’t bother making the schlep to the voting booth in the primary season. This year, however, saw near-record voter turnout with 192,542 ballots cast—32% of registered voters, only slightly short of the 193,000 ballots cast in 2008 and 2014.
Some partisans on both sides oppose these reforms. The former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and the Democratic leadership of Nevada, for example—where a system similar to Alaska’s is on the ballot this November—call the reform “confusing.” However, its popularity among voters who actually use it is growing. In exit polls, 85% of respondents in Alaska affirmed that ranked choice was “simple” to use, and 62% supported the top-four method, while just 33% didn’t. These results track with those from places as diverse as blue New York City and red Utah that have implemented RCV for municipal elections in nearly two-dozen cities.
The most important practical effect of Alaska’s reform will be to provide voters with better choices at the ballot box, more representative government, and governing outcomes more in line with the will of more voters, rather than only the base.
Alaska’s reforms were implemented just this year, but the initial results are promising. For starters, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, might not have advanced to the general election in a state that pushes an “artificial forced choice between extremes” onto voters, as conservative columnist Henry Olsen observed. But both Alaska’s special election to replace the late Rep. Don Young on August 16 for the remainder of his term and the primary to elect his permanent replacement in November are also notable. In the special election, Democrat Mary Peltola eked out a victory over the second-place finisher, the Trump-backed Palin. Peltola won because half of the supporters of the third-place finisher, Republican Nick Begich III, either listed Peltola as their second choice or didn’t list a second choice at all. Because the system is designed to pick the candidate who is most representative of voters, it changes the incentives for how candidates conduct themselves.
More states can and should pursue Alaska-style reform. As mentioned above, Nevadans have an up-or-down vote on a “top-five” (instead of -four) this November. A bipartisan nucleus of state lawmakers supports similar reforms in Wisconsin. States with sizable concentrations of Republican voters, such as Utah and Virginia, have pilot programs for RCV at the local level. In fact, Virginia’s state GOP has embraced RCV for primary contests, a variation that will help produce more representative candidates. These are just a few examples.
This diversity of support speaks well of the reform’s odds, as well as the unique coalitions that can form to back it. And this makes a cynical approach to primary politics that much worse. For instance, some Democratic entities are resorting to manipulating Republican primaries to support the most extreme candidates on the theory that they will be easier to defeat in the general election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Governors Association have spent tens upon tens of millions of dollars this election cycle in that quest. They helped defeat the few pro-democracy allies they have left in the GOP, such as Rep. Meijer. They also killed the bid of the more moderate Republican in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race and helped ensure that the Trump-hardliner Doug Mastriano, who actually participated in the Jan. 6 protests, wound up as the GOP candidate. This is a high-risk strategy that can badly backfire given that Mastriano has closed the gap with the Democratic candidate to merely 3 points.
Such manipulative tactics won’t offer voters better choices or make politicians more accountable. We need to fix the incentives in the electoral process so that it is no longer “rational” for politicians to pander to just a few voters to get elected.
The Last Frontier state is leading the way. The country should follow. Its survival may well depend on it.
Nick Troiano is executive director of Unite America and a former independent candidate for Congress. Unite America seeks to enact nonpartisan electoral reforms that can foster a more representative and functional government.
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