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Primary Problem

Analysis: Partisan primaries help explain why we got to the brink of a government shutdown

According to a Unite America analysis, our broken election system helps explain the chaos and dysfunction of the last few weeks.

Ross Sherman
Press Director
September 29, 2023

Congress narrowly avoided a government shutdown last week, passing a bipartisan funding bill with hours to spare. According to a Unite America analysis, our broken election system helps explain the chaos and dysfunction of the last few weeks:

  • There are eight representatives — the “Chaos Caucus" — who played a leading role in bringing Congress to the brink of a shutdown by being able to exercise disproportionate power within a narrowly-divided House.
  • These representatives were all elected from uncompetitive districts in 2022 where an average of only 12% of eligible voters effectively decided the outcome in partisan primaries.

Karen Tumulty captured that dynamic well in her Washington Post column: “We don’t have a House that represents voters because most voters don’t participate.”

Because of partisan primaries and uncompetitive general elections, a tiny fraction of American voters (8%) elects most of the U.S. House (83%). We’ve coined this the “Primary Problem,” which NPR brilliantly covered last week. Because the primary is the only election that matters to a vast majority of Congress, they have little incentive to work across the aisle to solve problems. They have every incentive to take positions that satisfy primary voters, who are unrepresentative of the electorate as a whole.

A similarly small faction of voters elects the eight members who are playing a leading role in propelling the United States toward a possible government shutdown. And with the exception of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, these eight members neither supported the bipartisan debt ceiling bill in June –– bringing the country to the brink of default –– nor Rep. McCarthy’s bid for Speaker in January. Our analysis breaks down the Primary Problem with those votes as well.

Of course, this isn’t just a Republican problem — the Primary Problem is a bipartisan problem. It’s also important to note that most Republicans don’t want a shutdown. But because they have such a small majority in the House, a handful of members can exercise extraordinary leverage over every debate. If we want a functional government capable of solving big issues — let alone accomplishing the basic task of funding the government — we need to change the incentives. 

  • American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin put it perfectly in National Review: “Electoral incentives are badly and in some respects increasingly misaligned with legislative incentives. The nature of the modern primary system means that many members of Congress are most concerned about voters who do not want them to give ground or compromise.”

This is this type of broken politics that's fueling advocates in states across the country to advance reforms that change how we elect members of Congress — reforms that will improve representation for American voters. Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington have either eliminated partisan primaries or replaced them with nonpartisan alternatives. And from New Mexico and Pennsylvania, momentum for election reform is accelerating at the state level. See our analysis for more examples of states tackling the Primary Problem.