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Nonpartisan Primaries

How Maine is chipping away at the Primary Problem

Three Things to think about this September 14, 2023

Ross Sherman
Press Director
September 14, 2023

In a presidential election or midterm election year, Labor Day typically marks the start of “election season.” We’re starting to pack our summer stuff away, kids are going back to school, football season is starting, and campaigns kick into high gear to capture our attention. (Sidenote: I can’t believe I just acknowledged that summer is over. Ugh.)

But even though 2023 is an “off year,” elections are still happening that are worth paying attention to. Just last week, Rhode Island and Utah held special primary elections for vacant seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, it was yet another advertisement for the Primary Problem. Like more than 80% of U.S. House contests, these two races won’t be competitive in the general election — so last week’s primaries effectively decided the winner. And because of exclusionary primary rules, a tiny number of eligible voters chose the winning candidate in each district:

The most powerful solution to this problem? Replacing partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries. That way, all eligible voters have the freedom to cast ballots for any candidate, regardless of party. Check out our “X” Thread for more.

1. How Maine is chipping away at the Primary Problem

Otherwise known as the Pine Tree State or Vacationland, Maine is a national leader when it comes to tackling the Primary Problem. (I also happen to be from Maine, but I swear that’s not the only reason I’m talking about it.) In 2018, Maine became the first state in the country to conduct an instant runoff — with ranked choice voting — in a federal election. Instant runoffs are key components of solving the Primary Problem. Because they ensure that candidates have to win a majority of the electorate to take office, elected officials from Maine better represent the interests of their constituents.

In 2022, Maine voters took another step toward the Primary Solution by approving “semi-open” primaries. Previously, Maine voters who weren’t registered with the Democratic or Republican parties couldn’t participate in the primaries. This semi-open primary system will be used for the first time in next year’s Republican Primary, which is amazing news for the 300,000-plus Maine voters who have previously been locked out of the primaries. The Portland Press Herald wrote recently about how that may impact the race.

As a philanthropic venture fund, a core part of Unite America’s strategy is investing in state-based organizations to solve the Primary Problem. We’re currently investing in Democracy Maine, a collaboration of three nonpartisan state-based organizations, to protect the instant runoff system and continue to advance electoral reform.

2. Nick Troiano talks The Primary Solution on SiriusXM

Before the long Labor Day weekend, our Executive Director Nick Troiano joined the Laura Coates Show on SiriusXM to discuss his forthcoming book, The Primary Solution: Rescuing our Democracy from the Fringes. The book is now available for pre-order, and will be published next March.

I’d encourage you to listen to the whole 10-minute segment, but I wanted to draw your attention to Nick’s final answer about why the Primary Solution is our priority at Unite America:

Sign up: Dr. Rich Barton joins Open Primaries to talk California’s Primary Solution

On Thursday, September 21, Unite America Democracy Fellow Rich Barton will be the featured guest in a virtual event hosted by our partner, Open Primaries. The discussion will focus on his research examining the benefits of California’s top-two nonpartisan primary system. Since adopting the reform in 2012, California has seen marked improvement in competition, representation, and polarization. For example, before its top-two nonpartisan primary, California was the most polarized state in the nation — by far. But from 2013-2018, it’s one of only five states in the country that has become less polarized. Californians’ opinion of their state government has also improved.

Over the past year, Rich has published research on nonpartisan primary systems in California and Louisiana. Later this year, we’ll also release a report on Alaska’s top-four nonpartisan primary system. While each state pursued a slightly different solution to the Primary Problem, they all have at least one impact in common: more voters in these reform states are casting “meaningful votes” that actually determine the outcome.

Again, the event is next Thursday, September 21, at 2pm ET. Sign up to attend here!