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Primary Problem

“You’ve Been Pre-Elected!” Half of U.S. House Already Effectively Elected in Primaries

Following the June 11 primaries, a startling 52% of the U.S. House seats have been decided by merely 5% of American voters.

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
June 12, 2024

Topline: Following the primaries on June 11, more than 50% of the U.S. House of Representatives has been effectively elected in partisan primaries by just 5% of the country’s voters. This should hardly be a surprise given the presence of the “Primary Problem.” With low primary turnout and over 80% of congressional districts “safe” for one party or the other, the vast majority of U.S. representatives must only win over the small number of voters who participate in partisan primaries to guarantee their election. Fortunately, several states are taking steps to address the Primary Problem this year by advancing efforts to implement nonpartisan primaries — a reform that puts voters first by giving them a stronger voice.

Half of U.S. House Already Effectively Elected in Primaries

The general election to choose the members of the 119th Congress may not be until November 5, but because of the “Primary Problem,” more than half (52%) of the next U.S. House has already been effectively decided in primary elections. 

How is this possible? Because of gerrymandering and the geographic self-sorting of the electorate — which means that Democrats tend to live among fellow Democrats and Republicans among Republicans — over 80% of congressional districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Because the outcome of the general election is a foregone conclusion, the vast majority of U.S. representatives are effectively elected in the primary of the dominant party in their district. Congressional primary turnout is historically very low (21% in 2022, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center), and those voters who do turn out represent a small and unrepresentative slice of the whole electorate.

The result? In 2022, just 8% of voters nationally effectively elected 83% of the House in primaries. Through June 11 of this year, 26 states have held their congressional primaries, and 5% of voters have effectively elected 52% of the House. By mid-August, 75% of the House will already be decided, and by September 17, when primary season comes to an end, over 80% of all representatives will be chosen. (See our live tracker for updates throughout the summer’s primaries.)

I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of the scammy “you’ve been pre-selected” offers from credit card companies. When so many representatives are “pre-elected” by such small and unrepresentative shares of voters, they tend to grandstand, promote gridlock, and attack members of the other party in order to score points with their party bases — which comprise much of their primary electorates. In other words, they’re not incentivized to collaborate and find common ground on the issues that most Americans care about. 

The Primary Problem on Display

An excellent example of the Primary Problem’s perverse incentives occurred just last month when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX) verbally sparred in a committee meeting. Both attacked the other’s physical appearance during the argument and later took to social media to capitalize politically on the moment.

Perhaps it is not surprising to learn that both Greene and Crockett represent districts that are safe for the Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Both representatives have also already been effectively reelected in primaries this year. Greene did not even face a challenger in her district’s Republican primary this year, meaning that she essentially clinched reelection without even having to earn a single vote. Crockett did face a challenger in her primary but cruised to victory in a contest that saw just 8% of voters in her district participate. 

Green and Crockett are far from alone. They are just two of 226 representatives who already know they will be members of the 119th congress after winning their primaries. This list includes but is far from limited to:

  • Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) — Did not face a primary opponent. Jordan is the vice chair of the right-wing Freedom Caucus and voted to overturn the 2020 election results.
  • Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) — Won a primary in which just 17% of the district participated. Lee is a member of the left-wing “Squad.”
  • Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) — Did not face a primary opponent. Roy is policy chair of the Freedom Caucus.
  • Rep. Robert Menendez Jr. (D-NJ) — Won a primary in which just 7% of the district participated. Menendez Jr. is the son of NJ Sen. Bob Menendez who has been indicted on corruption charges.
  • Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) — Won a primary in which just 9% of the district participated. Loudermilk voted to overturn the 2020 election results.
  • Rep. Greg Casar (D-TX) — Did not face a primary opponent. Casar is a member of the left-wing “Squad.”

The Primary Solution

The current election system makes it extremely difficult (if not outright impossible) for the majority of voters to hold our elected officials accountable. Fortunately, this November may bring hope for those who would like to see our elections become more representative. Voters in seven states are pursuing ballot initiatives that do something simple yet transformative: Ensure that every eligible voter has the freedom to vote for any candidate, regardless of party, in every taxpayer-funded election. If passed, these states would replace separate party primaries with a single, all-candidate primary (also known as a nonpartisan primary) — where the top vote getters (regardless of party) advance to the general election. In the general election, candidates would be required to earn majority support to win.

Four states — Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington — have already adopted nonpartisan primaries. Among those that could join them in November are Nevada and South Dakota. Their initiatives have already qualified for the ballot. Five other state campaigns are still in the process of qualifying initiatives for the ballot: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Oklahoma.

Ultimately, our elected representatives should reflect the views and interests of all voters — not just the small fraction that make up their primary electorates. If even just one or two of the state campaigns pursuing primary reform win this November, the movement will continue to progress. We will be closer to solving the Primary Problem and giving all voters more voice and more choice in who represents them in Washington, D.C.