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Separate Party Primaries Make Everyone Losers

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(Maria Dryfhout/

Paul F. deLespinasse By Wednesday, 22 March 2023 01:36 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Turnout in today's party primaries is highest among voters toward the extreme ends of the left-right spectrum. Ultra-conservative Republicans vote more in these primaries, as do ultra-liberal Democrats.

Because of who votes in their primary elections, defending themselves against challengers forces Republican politicians to move to the right and Democratic politicians to the left. This leaves them further apart and increases polarization.

Most voters in general elections are in the middle of the political spectrum, but too often they are forced to chose between major party candidates both of whom they can't stand. Mostly, they cannot afford to vote for third party candidates, since that means one less vote for the major party candidate they dislike least.

So they hold their noses and vote for the major party candidate they consider less bad than the other major party candidate.

Our current primary election system makes it very hard for the people who do get elected to make sensible policy compromises. Even reasonable compromises with representatives of the other major party will make politicians more likely to lose their next primary election.

This reluctance to compromise makes our national government insensitive to the values of the broad mainstream of public opinion, which would tend to favor the moderate policies produced by compromises.

Unlike moderate voters, who are less likely to vote in their party's primary elections, independent voters often can't participate. These independents therefore have less influence over candidate selection than they did in "the bad old days" when candidates were picked by party leaders.

Party leaders took public opinion into account. They wanted to nominate people who appealed to the large middle part of the political spectrum. They tended to nominate moderate candidates.

We got our current system of primary elections because reformers argued that it was undemocratic for party leaders to pick candidates. They thought it would be more democratic for party members to pick the candidates.

Alas, things did not work out as reformers hoped. As candidates for more and more offices were picked in separate party primaries, today's dysfunctional political system gradually developed.

Today, many election districts are dominated by one major party or the other, often because of gerrymandering. Support for the two major parties is so lopsided in these districts that whoever wins the dominant party's primary always wins the general election.

Many incumbents therefore worry more about winning their next primary than about losing the general election. Again, this discourages them from making reasonable compromises with the other party.

Government thus becomes less sensitive to moderate voters — the large number of people in the middle of the left-right distribution. Voters in general elections are increasingly limited to choosing between extreme candidates, right or left, instead of for the candidate they think would really do the most good.

It is probably impossible to fix this situation by abolishing political primaries.

But we can fix the problem by establishing a single primary in which everybody (regardless of party membership) can vote and combining it with ranked-choice general elections. The top four or five winners in the primary would advance to the general election.

Alaska recently adopted this system, proving that it is politically possible.

In a single primary, independents can vote, and extremists of left and right will cancel each other out in a way which can't happen in separate party primaries.

And ranked choice general elections will allow voters to vote for the candidate they like best without increasing the chances of the major party candidate they dislike most. In case their preferred third party candidate doesn't win, their second choice can be their preferred major party candidate.

Separate Democratic and Republican primaries are poisoning our political system in a way that makes us all losers. It is high time we replace them with a single primary where everyone can vote followed by ranked-choice general elections.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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In a single primary, independents can vote, and extremists of left and right will cancel each other out in a way which can't happen in separate party primaries.
primary parties, separate, losers, election
Wednesday, 22 March 2023 01:36 PM
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