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Nonpartisan Primaries

Academics Unite: Partisan Primaries and Alternative Election Systems at MPSA, Fusion Voting at Stanford

The latest research on Top-Two primaries during the recent MPSA Conference

Rachel Leven
April 19, 2023

The topline: Two convenings last week — the Midwest Political Science Association and New America’s “More Parties, Better Parties” conference at Stanford — evaluated election reform’s ability to reduce polarization, facilitate consensus in our politics, and lead to more functional and representative government. These conferences continue to demonstrate the value of bringing leading minds together to evaluate existing research, challenge assumptions, and lead on finding the answers to tough outstanding questions.

Last Friday, Unite America fellow and Syracuse professor Dr. Richard Barton brought some of the leading minds in election reform together at the Midwest Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting in Chicago. Panel participants included Laurel Harbridge-Young, Jesse Crosson, Seth Masket, Rachel Porter, Robert Boatright, and Christian Grose who were joined by a large and engaged audience.

Dr. Barton began the discussion with a brief review of the literature on top-two primaries, including early studies that found little evidence that the reforms reduced polarization, to more recent evidence that over time these reforms have had an effect. He then asked the participants to share their take on the academic consensus. 

Caption: Unite America fellow Richard Barton presents research on Partisan Primaries and Alternative Election Systems during the recent MPSA conference in Chicago, IL.

Opinions differed. While focusing on a different metric than polarization, Dr. Boatright reminded his colleagues that a look back at history shows prior attempts to break party power through primary reform have failed in the long run. 

At the same time, Dr. Harbridge-Butler noted that the majority of studies in the field have looked at open vs. closed primaries. She asserted that in these studies we do not find a big effect on polarization because the same voters continue to sort themselves into separate ballots according to their ideology. She suggested that as we have more variety in the type of primaries available, like top-two and top-four, there may be more opportunity to see differences. She also suggested that bringing the parties together on one ballot may be independently important because it provides voters with more choice and equal power. 

Participants also spoke about their desire to explore new methods to characterize voters and define the goals of election reform. Dr. Porter shared that she is thinking more about how primary voters evaluate candidates. Once you hold the party constant — as most primaries do — there are many more dimensions to look at beyond ideology including gender and group-level identity politics such as teacher unions promoting and supporting candidates who are teachers. 

Dr. Gross highlighted that many of these studies look at state-level races where partisan conflict is not as powerful a force as it is in congressional races. Because of this, he suggests, these reforms might have a larger effect on the federal level. He also suggested that rather than focusing on partisanship in state-level studies, researchers instead look at the dominance of shared ideologies.

Finally, Dr. Masket shared his evolving thoughts on primary reform. He acknowledged that when top-two initially passed, he didn't think it would have an impact at all, but said that, to his  surprise, top-two appears to have had an impact on moderating behavior in CA. 

In addition to Dr. Barton’s panel, there was a lot to like at MPSA this year. Among a great many other topics, researchers are looking at how candidates raise money, what drives voter turnout, whether congresspersons act more or less extreme when a policy issue is in the public consciousness, and are modeling the impact of election reforms. 

Separately, New America’s “More Parties, Better Parties” conference (co-hosted by the Center for Ballot Freedom, Lyceum Labs, Protect Democracy, and Stanford’s Center on the Democracy, Development, and the rule of Law) brought together academics, practitioners, and funders to evaluate more research on the value of political parties and the merits of fusion voting. The various panels highlighted findings from 13 research memos submitted, which focused on why strong parties are good for democracy (yet have largely failed on delivering promises to voters), and what we know about fusion voting (especially from evidence in Connecticut and New York). 

Caption: Panelists speaking at New America’s “More Parties, Better Parties” conference (co-hosted by the Center for Ballot Freedom, Lyceum Labs, Protect Democracy, and Stanford’s Center on the Democracy, Development, and the rule of Law.)

Advocates hope that fusion voting — or the ability of multiple parties to endorse the same candidate — will help lead to better representation, stronger political parties (including the space for more centrist parties), and compromise-oriented governing. However, the path to implement the reform will likely face an uphill litigation battle: while fusion voting was used extensively in the 19th century, it’s banned in its ideal form in almost every state. 

Both convenings will yield new published research and further collaborations amongst both academics and the reform community. We’re always learning here at Unite America: it’s a prerequisite for advancing evidence-based solutions that put voters first.