At the core of the American democratic experiment is the idea that our government derives its power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That consent is expressed in its fullest when voters elect their representatives. Yet, as this report shows, every four years, about 80% of eligible voters do not participate in some of the most determinative contests in our democracy: midterm primary elections.
This report examines turnout trends during the 2022 primary elections, conducted in 49 states and the District of Columbia, compared with turnout during the 2010, 2014, and 2018 midterm election cycles (Louisiana holds its primary on Election Day.) The paper also analyzes whether certain policy changes—such as unifying primary dates or adopting open primary or “top-two” or “top-four” formats—can boost voter participation.
Each midterm, 435 representatives and one-third of the 100-member U.S. Senate—most of our federal constitutional officers—are elected. Nearly 75% of states hold their gubernatorial elections in midterm years. State legislative and other state, county, and local contests also take place during these cycles. Before appearing on the general election ballot, candidates for these offices first have to navigate a primary.
Primaries have taken on great importance in American elections and hold significant implications for governing and bipartisanship. In the electoral context, primaries have in many cases superseded general elections as the consequential contest for determining the ultimate winner, especially in congressional and state legislative elections where one party typically dominates. Due to a combination of natural geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, the number of competitive seats for Congress and state legislatures has declined since the 1970s. Most are “safe” seats—reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, primaries—when voter participation is typically lowest—are increasingly determinative of the general election outcome.
BPC’s Commission on Political Reform recognized the troubling intersection of these two trends in 2014 when it identified the need to significantly increase primary turnout in addition to implementing redistricting reforms meant to limit gerrymandering. As the commission stated in its report Governing in a Polarized America, “Increasing participation in party primaries is good for the parties as well as the country, and setting higher turnout goals for primaries should be a national priority.”
The commission found that low-turnout midterm primaries erode the credibility of U.S. democracy and may allow more-extreme candidates to reach general elections and attain office. Higher participation means that the primary electorate would more likely match that of the general electorate and the population at large. BPC set a national target of 30% turnout of the voting-eligible population by 2020 and 35% by 2026.
The specter of primaries and primary challengers looms large in how incumbent officeholders approach their duties. When members of Congress anticipate a primary challenge, they “believe that they can reduce their vulnerability by focusing on the issues about which their primary constituency cares,” find Elaine Kamarck and James Wallner in a 2018 Brookings Institution study, and “are especially attentive to their primary constituencies when controversial issues are on the congressional agenda.” This has downstream effects as well. Party leaders in Congress, sensitive to the concerns of their fellow partisans, seek to avoid causing problems for them by structuring the legislative agenda in a way that increases the appearance of differences between the parties. The threat of a primary challenge can also discourage compromise. Lawmakers will avoid compromise because they believe primary voters will punish them for it.
Focusing on midterm cycles gives researchers a unique view of electoral participation absent the outsized attention and turnout boost garnered during presidential elections. Studying midterm nominating contests, however, presents difficulties. First, who and what appears on the ballot varies greatly from year to year. Staggered six-year Senate terms means that states will typically not have a U.S. Senate race during a midterm at least once every 12 years. Although gubernatorial contests tend to be more regular, about one-third of states do not have statewide gubernatorial elections that coincide with midterm federal contests. Additionally, top-ticket races are not always contested. We found that the lack of statewide races depresses turnout; this tendency should be considered when taking a national view of turnout during the nomination process.
Second, primaries’ timing varies by state and cycle. Unlike general elections, which take place on the same day in November throughout the nation, primary elections are held anywhere from March to September. This variability may prove a barrier to voter participation, because it makes it less likely that voters will know when to show up at the polls. We found that when states in the same region hold their primary on the same day, participation rises.
Third, some states use party conventions to shape which candidates appear on the primary ballot. In some cases, these conventions can replace an election for certain races, although no state eliminates primary elections altogether. Using nominating conventions depresses voter turnout, we found.
Finally, who is allowed to participate in primary elections varies greatly. Some states have “closed” primaries, where only those voters who have declared a party affiliation can vote in the primary for that party. Others have “open” primaries, where eligible voters can cast ballots for any party. In “top-two” and “top-four” systems, candidates from all parties are pooled into the same contest and compete for space on the general election ballot. We found that opening up primaries to all voters boosts participation.
This paper is a follow-up to BPC’s 2018 Primary Turnout and Reform Recommendations report, which found persistently low participation rates across states and over time.
Low primary turnout should be an ongoing concern for political parties, policymakers, and the public, given primaries’ outsized influence in our representative government. As these trends have intensified and turnout has yet to reach reasonable benchmarks, bold steps should be taken to increase participation in primary contests. Our analysis sheds light on the ability of various proposals to boost turnout.
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