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Nonpartisan Primaries

What’s blue and red and agrees all over?

Three things to think about the week of May 26th.

Unite America
June 2, 2022

There are a couple of primary elections to note on the horizon.

Californians, residents of the most populous U.S. state, head to the polls next Tuesday, June 6.

Alaskans, residents of the largest state by land mass, must postmark their ballots by Saturday, June 11, for the state’s all-mail special primary election to replace the late Rep. Don Young.

That’s how different these states are, in some ways: They can’t even get together on the definition of “biggest state.” Starting next year, California will send 52 representatives to the U.S House; Alaska will send one. One state has the lowest point of elevation in the nation, the other has the highest. You say Death Valley, I say Denali / Let’s call the whole thing off.

And one state, of course, is deep blue.

And the other tends to be pretty red.

And YET… let’s hold on just a minute.

Californians and Alaskans have one of the most noteworthy commonalities in politics these days: They’ve both done away with partisan primaries.

California uses a “top-two” system, in which all age-eligible voters select their preferred candidate — Democratic, Republican, or otherwise — and the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election. It’s the same principle in Alaska, except four candidates advance instead of two. Alaska’s model is the first of its kind in the country, and this June’s election will be the first time it’s used.

What does this mean for each state? Well, California, of course, has a lot of Democratic-dominated congressional districts. In a top-two system, sometimes that means two Democrats facing off against each other in the general election. But given the realities of partisan gerrymandering, in which one of the two major parties is sometimes redistricted practically out of existence, that’s OK. Look — we wish partisan gerrymandering didn’t exist, too. But since it does, the two finalists in a top-two system at least represent the will of all voters in the district, not just those who belong to one party and participate in that party’s primary. And as research from the University of Southern California has found, top-two primaries produce less polarizing lawmakers.

Without speculating too much, it’s easy to foresee a similar effect in Alaska — only with a different party mix. Alaska is one of the country’s most politically diverse states: Official data list more than half of its voters as either “nonpartisan” or “unaffiliated,” and Republicans comprise the largest party registration at just 27.2% of the electorate. Permitting all of these Alaskans (Democrats and others, too, of course) to participate in primary elections is flat-out just. Doing so opens up new possibilities for political competition among candidates, too — possibilities that will inevitably result in general elections that are more representative of all the state’s voters combined. 

See, California and Alaska are alike, and in a big way: their shared commitment to putting voters first.

Here are three other things to think about this week.

  1. Before a run-off, a one-off in Alaska

In a typical election year, here’s how Alaska’s new voting system will play out: Voters will pick their preferred candidate from a combined ballot during the nonpartisan primary, and the four highest vote-getters will compete against each other in a “ranked choice,” otherwise known as “instant runoff,” election in November. That’s straightforward enough: Vote as normal in the primary (and every eligible person gets to do it this time), and then use a system in the general that overwhelming majorities in places as different as NYC and cities in Utah say is easy to understand.

But this is not a typical election year, as the New York Times’s Emily Cochrane reports. Because Alaska is holding a special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. Don Young, who passed away earlier this year, Alaska will have four elections in the coming months instead of two: a special primary and general election just for the House seat, and a normal primary and general election for all offices. The special general and the normal primary will fall on the same day in August. That’s a tough break for Alaska’s election administrators and the state’s voters. But if anyone can manage difficult landscapes, it’s Alaskans: The state is mailing ballots to all voters and pre-paying postage for ones that are submitted.

Take this away: The additional complication has absolutely nothing to do with the new reforms (nonpartisan primaries and ranked choice voting), and everything to do with the passing of an elected official while he was in office.

  1. Hey, speaking of election administration…

It shouldn’t be politicized. Politico’s Heidi Przybyla reports on the threat to the election process when it is — it subordinates the will of voters to the interests of partisanship.

  1. Clips, clips, and more clips

Want to learn more about the Primary Problem? Watch and / or listen to Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano discuss it during the last week on FOX News, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and The Dispatch’s twice-weekly podcast.