Partisan primaries are the biggest, most solvable problem in American politics today. The “Primary Problem” disenfranchises voters, elects leaders who don’t represent the majority, and ultimately helps explain why Congress is incapable of solving our country’s biggest problems.
In order to fix the Primary Problem, we need to replace partisan primaries with nonpartisan alternatives. Currently, 46 states use some kind of partisan primary, while four use nonpartisan primaries.
Here are the types of primary systems, explained.
All 50 states hold primary elections for federal and state offices to determine which candidates appear on the general election ballot. The vast majority of states (46) use a partisan primary for congressional offices. In a partisan primary, eligible voters cast ballots to select the party’s official nominee for the general election.
While partisan primary rules differ slightly in these 46 states, there are three broad categories: closed, semi-open, and open. In all three categories, the Republicans and Democrats have separate primary ballots. This means that voters cannot vote for a Republican for one contest, and a Democrat in another, even if those candidates best represent their views.
There is even more variation within these categories. For example, some closed primary states allow voters to register with a party — and therefore participate in its primary — on the day of the primary election. Others require voters to be registered with the party by a set deadline prior to primary day. However, all closed primary states share one thing in common: Voters must become members of the party in order to participate in its primary. For that reason, they are grouped together.
The remaining four states (Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington) hold nonpartisan primaries. In nonpartisan primary systems, all candidates, regardless of party, appear on one ballot, and all registered voters are eligible to participate. The top vote getters advance to the general election. Unlike partisan primaries, the goal of a nonpartisan primary is not to select the official nominees of political parties. Rather, the nonpartisan primary serves as a winnowing election to ensure that a manageable number of viable candidates appear on the general election ballot. There are two main types of nonpartisan primaries in use today: Top Two and Top Four.
Nonpartisan primaries ensure that all eligible voters have the freedom to participate in every taxpayer-funded election, and guarantee that the winner secures a majority of the vote. In practice, nonpartisan primaries give voters more voice, better choices, and better representation.
1 Nebraska uses a partisan primary system for congressional and statewide offices but a nonpartisan primary system for its unicameral state legislature.
2 Nebraska uses Top Two for its state legislative contests; however, party labels are not listed on the ballot.