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New Report from the Bipartisan Policy Center Out Now: “2022 Primary Turnout: Trends and Lessons for Boosting Participation”

New Report from the Bipartisan Policy Center Out Now: “2022 Primary Turnout: Trends and Lessons for Boosting Participation”

Unite America
March 8, 2023

Topline: BPC’s latest report on primary turnout confirms that nonpartisan primaries see higher rates of voter participation. In 2022, about 37% of eligible voters participated in Alaska’s first top-four nonpartisan primary, while states with top-two systems averaged nearly 30% turnout. On the other hand, states with partisan primaries, especially those that limit who can participate, struggle to average over 20% participation. The report concludes with a number of recommendations for states to increase future participation in primaries, including opening up primaries to all voters and establishing a single, national primary day.

A significant contributing factor to the Primary Problem is that primaries are nearly always low-turnout contests that have an outsized impact on who ultimately represents the country in Congress. A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center2022 Primary Turnout: Trends and Lessons for Boosting Participation – confirms that 2022 was no different. 

Just 21.3% of all eligible voters participated in primary elections during the last cycle. While this represents an increase of 1.4% from the last midterm elections in 2018, it still falls well short of any sort of democratic ideal.

However, nonpartisan primaries present hope as a solution to this turnout problem. The report found that two nonpartisan primary states – Alaska (37% turnout) and Washington (35%) – were in the top five of primary turnout in the nation, while a third, California (29%), was also in the top ten. Kansas (48%) had the highest primary turnout, but this was greatly boosted by a notable statewide referendum on abortion rights that appeared on the ballot at the same time.

The five states with the worst turnout in 2022 — Virginia, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, and Mississippi — were all below 12%. These states either have closed primaries (which prohibit independents from participating) or hold their notable statewide elections, such as the governor’s race, in odd-numbered years. Further, in Virginia, parties have the option of holding a convention or “firehouse primary” open only to party members in lieu of a traditional open partisan primary. Three of these states, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, as well as New Jersey (which has both closed primaries and odd-year statewide elections) have also never surpassed 15% turnout in midterm primaries during the last decade.

BPC also concluded that even if a state maintains partisan primaries, ensuring all voters have the option to participate in primaries leads to increased participation. Specifically, over the past four midterm cycles, turnout in states with “fully open” primaries has been nearly 3.5% higher than states with closed primaries. Further, a deeper statistical analysis found that, on average, a state can boost midterm primary turnout by two percentage points just by switching from closed to open primaries. Better yet, states can increase turnout by an average of three percentage points by switching to a nonpartisan primary system.

The report also includes a number of recommendations for increasing future participation in primaries. First, based on the encouraging data points mentioned above, it suggests states should adopt more open primary systems to ensure that all voters are eligible to participate.

Second, the report recommends that states consolidate primary dates. Ideally, BPC argues, states would agree on a national primary day, but, at the very least, regions should hold their respective primaries at the same time. In 2022, primaries were held over a six month period – from March to September. This leads to most primaries not receiving much media attention, and as a result, they can be easily ignored or missed by casual voters. The report concludes, “If states hold their primaries simultaneously, media attention would likely increase, leading to greater public awareness and participation. This would especially be true for states in the same region, as shared media markets would be saturated by election coverage.”

Other recommendations made in the report include:

  • Combining state and federal primaries: Most states do this, but those that don’t experience a substantial turnout penalty.
  • Allowing voters to participate in uncontested races: Sixteen states do not allow voters to signal support for a candidate when only one is listed on the ballot. States that do allow votes in uncontested primaries see a higher turnout rate than those that do not.
  • Eliminating nominating conventions: A small number of states hold conventions that can impact which candidates reach the primary ballot; these states have lower primary turnout, on average.

The report concludes by acknowledging that overall participation remains too low despite some recent small improvements. Improving primary turnout will not just benefit voters, however. Parties also stand to gain through the nomination of more representative and competitive candidates.

“Making primary elections more visible to the general public will necessitate a new breed of candidates willing to seek broad support within his or her party … and the electorate as a whole during the general election.”

Reforming primaries is a policy change individual states have the power to implement in order to encourage the participation of more Americans in the democratic process. They must do just that to help create a more functional and representative government.