Commentary & Analysis

The Primary: What Is It Good For?

By Aaron Hamlin

Odd Country Out

The U.S. is an oddball in many of the ways it conducts elections. You’ll find that its peculiarities have carryover effects throughout the political system. And U.S. primaries certainly fall in this oddball category. Other countries that use primaries tend to have those primaries organized by parties. The U.S., however, conducts its primaries through publicly-funded elections mostly in closed partisan races. This furthers the U.S. trend of having poll workers push voters through a neverending series of elections.

This approach for primaries was the result of the progressive movement. Well intentioned, the goal was for these primaries to move power away from parties and back to voters. But it’s a farce to say that voters hold the power today. Things are so out of step that a recent Princeton article claimed the U.S. was more of an oligarchy than any kind of populace-run government. Ouch!

Top-Two Cheers

New York Senator Chuck Schumer thinks the solution is to open up the primaries entirely, a process called top-two. This would let everyone, regardless of political affiliation choose the candidate they wished. The top two candidates would then go to the general election. Others agree on this approach, including groups like Independent Voter Project.

This approach aims to soften how partisan the winners are. It also tries to open up which voters can participate in the primary. This contrasts from closed primaries which tend to leave out third parties and independents from this primary stage.

Top-Two Jeers

But this top-two approach has its critics. Third parties in California, for instance, are challenging the method in court. Ballot access experts Richard Winger, Ballot Access News owner, and Christina Tobin, founder of Free & Equal, don’t like top-two either. Winger and Tobin recognize that the two major parties are the ones likely to advance in a top-two election. And they don’t like the idea of major parties monopolizing the stage in the general election.

The fear is that having just the two parties (or two from one party) in the final round will further reduce the impact of third parties and independents. Though these alternative candidates aren’t good at winning in any kind of primary, the argument is that their absence from the general election will diminish their voice.

Then there’s the further question of whether top-two actually elects more moderates. And, according to research from some political scientists at UCSD, Columbia, and Georgetown, top-two doesn’t elect more moderates at all.

Everyone’s Least Favorite Voting Method

This less-than-spectacular result of top-two shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, both top-two and traditional closed primaries use what’s commonly considered among experts to be the worst voting method. That method is plurality voting. Plurality voting tends to sprint towards failure the moment more than two candidates enter the race. As a refresher, plurality voting is the method where the voter chooses one candidate and the candidate chosen the most wins.

Here’s a look at how poorly plurality performs when you have a handful of candidates on the ballot:

(Figure created using the voting tool from Ka-Ping Yee. Also, political ideology tends to be normally distributed as shown above.)

We’d imagine that the candidate with the broadest appeal should win, right? That would be the orange candidate here, who’s preferred by an enormous margin against blue and red and a moderate margin against green and yellow.

But red is the plurality winner, slightly trailed by the other extreme candidate, blue. This is because support for the middle is divided among three candidates (we call this vote splitting). Plurality’s winners are largely determined not by the merit of the candidates, but rather by who else is running. The others running bizarrely don’t even have to win to change the outcome.

Now what about that runoff? The top-two solution would merely put red and blue head-to-head. That hardly solves anything. Roughly 70% of voters prefer orange against both red and blue. They’re clearly the worst candidates and yet plurality concludes otherwise.

Drawing the Line

If plurality were the only culprit, however, then why did we recently see Republican House majority leader, Eric Cantor, beaten by a more partisan Tea Party candidate? After all, that primary election only had two candidates, so we can take away the plurality voting issue.

In another U.S. tradition, we tend to elect everyone within single-member districts (winner-take-all). Further, we kindly let elected officials draw their own districts. Indeed, Eric Cantor’s own party got to draw the lines for his 7th District. And they drew his district so that it was conservative . . . apparently conservative enough to elect a Tea Party candidate over him.

(Virginia’s 7th District, as drawn by Eric Cantor’s own party)

Proportional Representation: Making Primaries Moot

When asked how to address these issues, ballot access expert Christina Tobin recommended sidestepping primaries altogether by using a proportional representation (PR) method. PR methods use either many large districts or one enormous district where candidates are elected simultaneously. PR methods give parties roughly the same proportion of seats as their proportion of votes. And PR can avoid party affiliation by using certain PR methods which tend to elect fewer members with a somewhat less proportional result.

PR is actually possible at the state and city level. Illinois used a state-level semi-proportional method for over 100 years. Illinois’ method (cumulative voting) used three-member districts, though this small district size produced a win threshold sufficiently high to leave out third parties. Still, it balanced results a bit more evenly between the two major parties.

Some U.S. city councils have taken the PR approach already using semi-proportional methods. Cambridge, Massachusetts actually uses a more proportional method,

Note that the use of PR would make redistricting a moot point, especially with multi-seat districts that use more than four seats. It’s hard to push out voters when their candidates always get a proportional share of the seats. (But if you have to use districts, there’s always the shortest split-line algorithm.)

(Viginia as divided by the shortest split-line algorithm)

Proportional Representation Hurdles

Tobin’s recommendation for PR—thus nullifying primaries—would be harder to pull off for federal offices. A federal law (Title 2, U.S.C.§2c) says that U.S. House seats have to be in single-member districts. This was a poorly worded law designed to avoid the negative one-sided representation of multi-winner bloc plurality. (This method is a virtual default in U.S. multi-winner elections.) The law effectively barred PR methods. Rep. McKinney tried to carve an exception for PR methods with the Voter Choice Act in 2005 but had no luck getting it to go anywhere.

Senate seats don’t work for PR methods either because Article 1, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution requires within-state staggering. This forces Senate races into single-winner elections, again a nonstarter for PR methods.

(Proportional methods tend to elect multiple parties whereas winner-take-all systems, particularly with plurality, tend towards two parties.)

A Primary If You Insist

So in some cases we can get out of primaries altogether by using a PR approach. But other times, either because you’re dealing with an executive office or because the law requires a single-winner race, you have to stay with single-member districts.

Oregon recently tried petitioning for an approach called a unified primary. This has the openness of the nonpartisan top-two primary, but it uses approval voting instead of plurality. Unlike plurality voting, approval voting lets you pick as many candidates as you wish. This primary approach avoids the division of support among similar candidates (vote splitting). It also gives you more moderate winners by avoiding the “center squeeze effect.”

The unified primary advances the top two candidates, just like the top-two primary. Of course, a nonpartisan primary doesn’t have to advance just the top two, especially when vote splitting isn’t a concern because of approval voting. Take the top three or four, whatever number works for you.

In fact, you could go even further if you wished. Just skip the primary altogether and do approval voting in an open general election.

What Are They Good For?

So do we really need primaries? It certainly doesn’t look very efficient, especially considering how often we’re already asked to vote. We’ve got other options. There’s the PR route. And if you need single-winner districts, there’s approval voting. No primary needed. But if you’re determined to narrow down the candidates by a primary, there’s the unified primary.

Most importantly, regardless of whether a primary is used, we should never use plurality voting. Ever.