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Poll: Voters Overwhelmingly Support Eliminating Partisan Primaries, Requiring Majority Winners

A new poll finds that overwhelming majorities support two key principles of election reform

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
August 7, 2023

Topline: A new poll finds that overwhelming majorities support two key principles of election reform: (1) All voters should be able to vote for any candidate in every taxpayer-funded election, and (2) candidates should have to earn majority support to win. Most voters also assume that these principles are already true of our elections, but that’s not the case in all but a handful of states. 

Significant majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents also agree on how we get there: by replacing partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries and requiring majority winners in general elections (such as through instant runoffs). However, the election reform movement must continue to make the case to voters that these changes are solutions to government dysfunction.

The 2024 presidential election cycle is already well underway, yet most Americans are pessimistic about our two likely choices, as well as our democracy as a whole. One key reason: The Primary Problem is alive and well, with less than 10% of Americans effectively electing 83% of the U.S. House in both 2020 and 2022. 

A Citizen Data poll commissioned by Unite America in 2023 asked voters if they agreed with two key principles that we believe any new election system should support. The findings are overwhelming: 

  • 91% agree that all voters should be able to vote for any candidate in every taxpayer-funded election
  • 76% agree that candidates should have to earn majority support to win an election 

Tellingly, 70% of respondents believed that both of these statements are already true, despite the fact that neither is. Currently, 30 states have restrictions in place that limit who can vote in certain primary elections, which are taxpayer-funded. The vast majority of states also hold plurality elections, allowing candidates to win with less than majority support in contests with three or more candidates.

But here’s the good news: voters agree generally on how we fix that problem. A 2022 poll commissioned by Unite America found that 65% of voters support replacing partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries and requiring majority winners in general elections. Even more encouraging, this support is not limited to one party. Significant majorities of Democrats (71%), Republicans (56%), and independents (68%) support the policy changes. There are even encouraging signs among those who did not show support: just 13% of respondents said they were outright opposed, while the remaining 22% are unsure and could be open to persuasion. 

While neither poll asked about specific types of primary reform (i.e. Top Two, Top Four, or the Louisiana Model), the trend is clear: Voters support the main concepts required to solve the Primary Problem. This is a positive first step toward building widespread public support for specific policy solutions. 

However, it’s clear that election reform organizations and our allies have more work to do in order to convince voters that these reforms will help reduce government dysfunction. For instance, the 2022 poll found that 45% of voters believe our government is in need of “real, significant, and fundamental change,” but just 12% said the same of our elections. Additionally, respondents were asked to choose which factor they believe most negatively impacts the health of our democracy. Presented with a list of 13 options, a plurality (21%) chose “corruption by the people in charge,” while just 2% chose “partisan primaries,” which was the least common response. 

One way to help voters understand the connection between our election system (and partisan primaries in particular) and their dissatisfaction with government is to share the stories of voters who have experienced the positive impacts of election reforms. There is mounting evidence to suggest that voters do not just like reform proposals in theory. Those who have experienced new election reforms report high levels of satisfaction, and that they find the reforms easy to understand. 

For example, exit polling of Alaska voters conducted immediately following the state’s first top-four nonpartisan primary found that 62% of voters approve of the reform. Nearly 80% found it “easy” to fill out a ranked choice ballot, while nearly 60% said Alaska’s elections were more competitive in 2022. 

Perhaps even more illuminating than the results of exit polls is the testimony from Alaska voters in favor of the reforms. Recently, the Alaska Legislature held a hearing on the state’s top-four nonpartisan primaries and instant runoff general elections. Below are a few quotes from voters explaining why they support their state’s election system: 

“I have voted in every state election since I moved to Alaska in 1970, and I was very pleased with the open primary and the results of the 2022 elections. I had a larger field of candidates to choose from, not just from the party that I would normally vote for. Given the divides in our state, I look for candidates regardless of party or affiliation who pledged to work across the aisle. Alaskans have diverse experience and opinions and we need to find ways to work together and craft reasonable laws.” - Odette E.
“I did not have to game the system to vote for whom I thought was the most electable. I just voted for whom I thought was best.” - Mark D.
“I feel liberated because I am no longer forced to deal with this closed primary where the whole list of choices that I have are controlled by either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party.” - Catherine M.
“[The new system] has magnified our ability to select the kind of leaders we need to have as we progress into the 21st century. I'm saying that partly as a great, great grandfather of a great, great grandson who's not quite a year old yet… It’s easy, it's democratic, and it empowers voting Alaskans, the majority.” - Mark S.
“Alaska has had a House and now a Senate with bipartisan majorities. This is really unusual in American governance, and I applaud it. Let's have more of it, not less.” - Sylvia K.

The story is clear: Large majorities of voters support election reform, and those who have participated in reformed election systems view them not only as an improvement, but as an antidote for dysfunctional, unrepresentative government. As more jurisdictions embrace reform, the viability and effectiveness of election reform as a solution will likely only become clearer to more voters.