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Embrace Primaries to Restore the Sensible Center

Light primary turnout can foster political extremism. One solution is boosting the primary vote.

May 2, 2014

Next Tuesday Republican voters in North Carolina—or, at least, some of them—will choose a Senate candidate to oppose imperiled Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. This Senate primary has been portrayed as a three-cornered struggle among the dominant factions in the modern GOP—the conservative business establishment (Thom Tillis), the Tea Party wing (Greg Brannon) and evangelical Christians (Mark Harris).

But, based on past electoral history, fewer than one quarter of the 2.3 million North Carolina voters who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 will participate in the GOP primary.

Ninety-year-old Texas Republican Ralph Hall, who gamely tried to make a political virtue out of his wrinkles, is facing a May 27th runoff primary to retain the House seat that he has held since the 1980 election. Since Hall’s northeastern Texas district is overwhelmingly GOP territory, the March 4th primary was the first time in decades that local voters could cast a meaningful ballot to determine who would represent them in Congress.

Fewer than 66,000 Republicans participated in the initial primary that pitted Hall against five challengers. That was less than half the GOP vote that Hall picked up in the last midterm congressional election in November 2010. And represented just 36 percent of the voters who backed Hall in the 2012 general election.

These are not aberrations. In the three prior midterm election cycles in this century (2002, 2006 and 2010), national voter turnout in congressional primaries has never exceeded 7.5 percent of the voting age population. Put another way, more Americans have a favorable image of Iran (12 percent in a February 2014 Gallup Poll) than are likely to vote in congressional primaries this year.

Low primary turnout—aside from occasional presidential contests—has long been a feature of American democracy. It is easy to understand why voting in primaries is an oddball habit like collecting Hummel figurines.

Without the cues provided by partisan identification (everyone running in a typical primary is from the same party), voters have to work harder to make an informed decision. Local newspapers—which have cut their staffs so much that they can all fit into a phone booth with Clark Kent—lack the resources to provide more than cursory coverage to most primaries. Since there is no national primary day like the first Tuesday in November, voters are not reminded by national TV shows or Google to cast their ballots. Finally, dates for primaries are sometimes deliberately chosen by party leaders to depress turnout. Evidence: Fourteen states will be holding primaries this year during the August vacation season.

The problem is not new—but its implications are.

The combination of the clustering of like-minded voters, computer-aided gerrymandering and the decline in split-ticket voting have reduced the number of swing districts in Congress and state legislatures. In fact, below the state level, primaries are often the only time that a voter gets to cast a ballot without knowing the outcome in advance.

(Full disclosure: This is an apt moment to mention that I am participating in a Brookings Institution study of the 2014 House primaries along with senior fellow Elaine Kamarck and journalistic colleague Jill Lawrence).

A larger problem is that miniscule turnout in primaries feeds political polarization and extremism. The rise of the Tea Party movement was aided by a GOP primary electorate in which militant conservatives were over-represented. Rand Paul, for example, won his 2010 Kentucky Senate primary with little more than one quarter of the votes that he received in the 2010 general election. In Texas in 2012, Ted Cruz won seven times as many votes in the November election as he did in upsetting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Senate primary.

So how do we increase voter participation in primaries?

The usual remedies offered for general elections may be ill-suited for primaries. If adults have little motivation and scant knowledge of the candidates, early voting might not inspire them to cast primary ballots. Except in unusual situations, voter suppression is a tactic employed in the November elections rather than primaries.

Yes, I know there are devotees of California’s jungle primary system that vaults the top two finishers into the November election regardless of party. And every four years as the presidential candidates make their inevitable pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire, there are equally predictable calls for a national primary.

Despite my skepticism on both fronts, the relevant point is that these far-reaching reforms are unlikely to be adopted on a national level within the next decade or two. Needed right now are remedies that might inspire more voters in both parties to cast primary ballots in 2016 and 2018.

Start with a drive to prompt states to experiment with Saturday primaries. (Hawaii is the only state with one scheduled for 2014, although South Carolina Republicans traditionally hold their presidential primary on a Saturday). Another notion would be to rollout an innovative campaign of public service announcements (sponsored either by philanthropic groups or state governments) to stress to voters the significance of the stakes in political primaries.

In truth, a major stumbling block is the built-in bias against partisan primaries by both reform groups and average voters. Even after more than 150 years of Democrats versus Republicans, political parties make many high-minded Americans uncomfortable. Partisanship runs against the grain of the beloved-in-theory (but ignored in practice) civics-book ideology, “I vote for the candidate not the party.”

Ideological polarization is, of course, the result of disdaining political parties and their primaries. The less popular parties become, the less representative are the candidates whom they nominate. And the resulting shrillness of the political debates turns off even more voters. Which is how we end up with more Americans liking Iran than party primaries.

Maybe the primary solution is to hug a political party today—or, at least, take one to lunch.

(Photo: AP)

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.