A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
American democracy is changing right now in important and optimistic ways in red and blue states.
Anger at the lack of choices in the two-party system fueled the ranked-choice voting experiment in reliably Republican Alaska, which pairs with a similar experiment in the liberal haven of New York City. In ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Learn about the entire process.
There is ranked-choice voting in Maine. There are nonpartisan primaries in California and technically no primary at all in Louisiana.
While political parties are consolidating their power with redistricting in states where they can – Texas and Illinois, for instance – voters, given the chance, often choose to take power away from the parties.
I talked to Nick Troiano, executive director of the nonprofit Unite America Institute, one of a number of state and national groups pushing to overhaul American democracy by taking control of primaries away from political parties.
Our conversation, conducted by phone and edited for flow, is below.
What’s the problem with primaries and democracy?
WHAT MATTERS: In a nutshell, what’s wrong with the primary system?
TROIANO: I think the primary system is the biggest solvable problem fueling political polarization today. And that’s because:
- First, most of our elections are in safe districts that are effectively decided in primaries.
- Second, turnout in those primaries is very low.
- And third, those who do turn out aren’t very representative of the electorate as a whole.
And so, therefore, candidates and elected officials are rewarded for pandering to their base and punished for reaching across the aisle to solve problems.
Why do nonpartisan primaries help?
WHAT MATTERS: Your group pushes nonpartisan primaries. Why do those solve the problem, if you’re still relying on a small subset of voters in a primary?
TROIANO: Fundamentally, nonpartisan primaries make the general election the election of consequence, when most voters are turning out.
In a system of nonpartisan primaries, every voter gets to participate and cast a ballot that matters, not just those who belong to the majority party in a given state or district.
It gives a lot more power to voters, as well as better choices too.
How do we know these work?
WHAT MATTERS: Is there any hard evidence that these actually cut down on polarization?
TROIANO: Yes, plenty.
Several states have had nonpartisan primaries for a long time, including Louisiana, which doesn’t have primaries, essentially. California, Washington and Nebraska and now most recently, Alaska.
At least one study from USC found that new members of Congress elected under nonpartisan primaries are 18 percentage points less extreme than new members elected under partisan primaries.
The reality is that these reforms take some time not only to implement but to truly affect who runs for office and who gets elected. There is sometimes a delay in us seeing results from the moment of adaption. That’s why I think we’re still learning a lot.
There is still partisanship
WHAT MATTERS: Let’s take the examples there – California and Washington are reliably blue states with mostly Democratic congressional delegations. Nebraska and Alaska are reliably red states with mostly or entirely Republican delegations. We still have the problem, or the reality, of two parties controlling things, right?
TROIANO: Well, I think the Alaska system is an improvement over top two, because it not only advances four candidates to the general election, but it includes ranked-choice voting, which levels the playing field for independent and third-party candidates by eliminating that spoiler effect.
So I would expect to see more competition in the Alaska system versus states that have had other kinds of nonpartisan primaries.
Nationwide, bipartisan movement
WHAT MATTERS: I think a lot of Americans would be kind of surprised that these experiments are going on right now. What is the larger lay of the land? Are there other states moving in this direction?
TROIANO: Yes, there’s a growing movement across the country to solve the primary problem in different ways.
Just within the last year, several states have expanded the use of ranked-choice voting on a bipartisan basis, including Virginia, Colorado and Utah, and other states have opened primaries to independent voters, such as Maine.
In November, Nevada will be the next state to have a ballot initiative with the same Alaska policy of top five primaries and ranked-choice voting.
So there are different flavors of reform bubbling up across the country in recognition that if we truly want to change the outcomes of the political system, we have to reform our elections.
Red states, blue states
WHAT MATTERS: You have real reform happening in a blue state like Maine and a red state like Alaska. It’s happening in California and Utah, which runs counter to the idea that Americans can’t agree on anything.
TROIANO: Exactly. I think this issue can unite Americans left, right and center that they should have the power to choose their representatives – and that their representatives should represent them, not the party bosses or special interests.
And so much like the Progressive Era reforms 100 years ago, I think we’re entering a new era of reimagining what democracy can be in the 21st century.
Recognizing that what we have now not only isn’t working, but it’s actually a threat to the republic, in terms of growing extremism.
Opposition based on power, not party
WHAT MATTERS: The people or entities that stand to lose in this kind of change are political parties. What kind of opposition do these kind of movements run into from the parties?