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Did you watch last week’s GOP debate?

Three things to think about this August 31st

Ross Sherman
Press Director
August 31, 2023

It’s hard to believe that August (and summer) is almost over. Wherever you are, I hope you’re getting ready to enjoy the long Labor Day weekend and soak up these last weeks of warm weather. As for me, I’m headed up to the Colorado mountains this weekend to knock out a couple more “14ers”.

Before I get into Three Things, I wanted to share a quick dispatch from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Summit, which a few of my colleagues attended. NCSL holds this summit every year, and because it’s the nation’s largest bipartisan convening of state legislators and staff, it’s a great opportunity to talk to key decision makers about our reforms.

At our booth (pictured below), my colleagues spoke to legislators from all the states that ban independents from voting in primaries. It was clear there was an appetite for reform among that group since they’ve all lived the Primary Problem and have first-hand experience of how it distorts our politics. Our Research & Outreach Director Beth Hladick also participated in a panel discussion appropriately titled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Primaries,” alongside Wyoming State Sen. Cale Case and Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

All in all, the Summit demonstrated there's cross-partisan support for solving the Primary Problem in the spirit of a more functional and representative government.

1. The Primary Problem with last week’s GOP debate

Did you watch the first GOP debate of the presidential primary season last week? I did, because I wanted to hear the candidates’ vision for the country. But even before they took the stage, we knew more or less how it was going to play out.

Let’s call it the Primary Problem with presidential primaries. In our current presidential primary system, candidates only need to win a small fraction of the electorate in order to secure the nomination of their party. As our Executive Director Nick Troiano said to Yahoo News, “They’ll take positions popular with the fringes of the party — because all the system requires for them to win is a small percentage of Republican voters in a handful of early primary states. Many of those same positions, though, are drastically out of step with a majority of voters.”

Consider this: In 2016, about 1.3 million Republicans cast ballots in the all-important early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. That’s a mere 1% of the 137 million Americans who voted in the general election that year.

A better system is possible — one that ensures both nominees reflect the majority of the electorate, or at least a majority of voters within each party. Unite America co-chair and former Fortune 250 CEO Kent Thiry recently penned a piece in The Hill with a powerful solution: requiring instant runoffs for presidential primaries.

2. One year ago today, Alaska made history with its Primary Solution

You might remember that following the sudden death of former Rep. Don Young last year, Alaska held its first election under the new top-four nonpartisan primary system in August. And on August 31, 2022, the results of Alaska’s historic special election were announced. In that election, Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola squeaked out a victory over former Gov. and Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin. Many commentators were surprised by the result, wondering… How the heck did a Democrat win in Alaska? Isn’t Alaska a deep red state?

The answer is… not exactly. In fact, Peltola’s win demonstrates how Alaska’s top-four system is more likely to produce winning candidates that better reflect voters. It also changes the incentives for candidates. Rather than only needing the support of their most fervent base to win, candidates instead need to speak to a broader swath of the electorate. Peltola accomplished that task more effectively, consistently highlighting her bipartisan credentials, complimenting her opponents, and generally running on a more unifying platform — all of which may have doomed her in a partisan Democratic primary.

The final vote confirmed the success of this strategy. In the three-way race, Peltola led Palin by nine percentage points, but didn’t have the majority required to win. In the instant runoff, the third candidate (Nick Begich, a Republican) was eliminated. Nearly 30% of his supporters ranked Peltola second over Palin, which was enough to put Peltola over the 50% threshold and secure victory. So for those wondering why Palin lost, it’s pretty simple: If she had the support of a majority of Alaskans, she would have won.

Source: The Washington Post

The Peltola special election wasn’t an anomaly. In Alaska’s 2022 general election, voters also elected statewide candidates that reflect the state’s ideological diversity: reelecting Peltola, as well as their conservative Republican governor and moderate Republican senator.

3. RepresentWomen’s 2023 gender parity index

For 10 years, our partner RepresentWomen has published its Gender Parity Index (GPI) to track America’s progress toward gender-balanced governance and identify opportunities for increasing women’s political representation in the U.S.

The findings from this year’s GPI are… not where they should be. This line sums it up: “In 2023 men hold 72% of all seats in Congress, and the increases in women’s representation are so minimal that most of us won’t live to see gender balance in government.”

The report recommends implementing structural changes to our elections in order to balance the playing field more rapidly. For example, instant runoffs in Maine played a key role in the state’s #1 ranking and “A” grade in the report. Similarly, Alaska improved its ranking following passage of its top-four nonpartisan primary system.

Finally, I have a reminder: The American Democracy Summit is happening September 27-29 in Los Angeles. The Summit (formerly known as the Unrig Summit) is the premiere right-left event to solve America’s political crisis. More info about the event can be found here, and you can buy a discounted ticket using the code BETTERDEMOCRACY.