There’s little debate that America’s polarized politics are producing a more dysfunctional Congress, but there’s little agreement between the country’s political factions on how to fix it.
One place to start may be our political primaries, a uniquely American mechanism, which often push candidates to take extreme positions that are far more popular among their party’s base than their general constituency.
“[Primaries] produce a peculiarly hostile kind of politics because suddenly a lot of these people who are getting to Congress don't believe in compromise,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at both the Brookings Institute and Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of "Primary Politics." "Look around the world at other democracies, and nobody uses this crazy primary system.”
In speaking with politicians, watchdogs and academics about the evolution of America’s primary elections, NBCLX found consensus opinions pointed to three clear problems with primaries and three potential fixes — one of which is certain to raise red flags among both Democrats and Republicans.
Problem 1: They disenfranchise voters
Most states do not allow Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries or Democrats to vote in Republican primaries. And in a deep-red or deep-blue district, where the winner of the primary is all but guaranteed victory in the general election, much of the electorate is never given the chance to actually cast a meaningful ballot in that race.
Today, with fewer competitive Congressional districts than ever before (a product of both geographical self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering), tens of millions of Americans don’t get a say in certain key races.
“People have been moving to live near like-minded people,” Kamarck said. “What that does is it creates a lot of very safe congressional districts.”
For example, in Florida’s 1st Congressional District, hundreds of thousands of independents and Democrats living in the panhandle had no real say in their Congressional representation, as Rep. Matt Gaetz essentially clinched his seat in 2016 when he won a crowded primary by 14,159 Republicans votes — just 1.8% of the constituents he now represents.
Similarly, in New York, 50% of the state had little say in the 2018 gubernatorial election because Democrats outnumber Republicans and independents by such a large margin that the incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo, had little to worry about once he survived the Democratic primary.
Problem 2: Meager turnout
Despite the importance of primaries, they tend to draw just a fraction of the electorate. With dates scattered all over the spring and summer calendars, rather than one well-hyped election day in November, primary elections suffer from a lack of attention from voters and news outlets alike.
Turnout for primaries is often less than half of that for general elections, meaning representation for districts of 800,000 residents are routinely decided by only tens of thousands of voters.
“You can be a very good citizen, and you can still easily forget there is a Congressional primary going on," Kamarck said. “Only the most ideological, committed voters actually turn out to vote in primaries.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il.) — who decided not to run for another term in 2022 after his impeachment vote against President Trump produced partisan blowback and primary challenges — said low turnout is a sign the system can be improved.
“When 10% of Americans basically are the ones going and electing their representative, we can understand why people feel so disaffected," he told NBCLX.
Problem 3: They produce extreme candidates
When candidates don’t have to worry about appealing to independents or voters from the opposite party, they have less political incentive to consider moderate ideas.
What's more, when the primary is the key race in a district — as it is with the majority of Congress now — candidates often run to the extremes to appeal to their party’s most fervent voters. And they’re often afraid of reaching across the aisle in Washington, because compromise could be an opportunity for a more extreme candidate to run against them in a future primary.
“It's very unfortunate for democracy when compromise becomes a dirty word,” Kamarck said. “Purity of ideology matters more than getting the deal and getting it done. And they don't get it done, and that's very unfortunate for us.”
Added John Dick, founder and CEO of data intelligence firm CivicScience: “Moderation and compromise have become a sign of weakness at best and tribal betrayal at worst. ... The combination of partisan-motivated redistricting, single-choice primary voting and political tribalism is rapidly eroding any middle in American politics.”
Fix 1: Limit partisan gerrymandering
Politicians' abilities to draw district lines in ways that benefit them politically, at the expense of opposing parties, has created an enormous number of “safe” Congressional seats, meaning the general election is seldom in doubt.
Democrats have tried to pass anti-gerrymandering provisions inside larger election reform bills to reduce partisanship and make elections more competitive. However, those massive bills stalled out.
That said, with an overwhelming majority of both Democrat and Republican voters supporting limits on gerrymandering, it’s plausible a single-issue bill could one day pass even a bitterly divided Congress.
A number of state legislatures have also turned their redistricting duties over to independent commissions, which tend to produce more competitive maps. But Kamarck said even a ban on gerrymandering won’t make every district competitive again, given Americans’ propensity to want to live near like-minded individuals.
Fix 2: Open primaries up to everyone
Several dozen states now allow independents to cast ballots in party primaries, and a handful of states allow members of the opposite party to vote in primaries as well, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, at least 15 states, including Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, still keep their primaries largely closed off to voters outside the party. Opening them up could change the dynamics in dozens of Congressional races, where candidates are currently able to win a seat in Washington with only a small percentage of their district’s vote.
Fix 3: Ditch 'em altogether
The Constitution says nothing about primaries, and for most of the country’s history, they didn’t even exist. Lincoln, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt were all chosen by party bosses, not party primaries.
Kamarck said America could go back to a day when a select few in the party, rather than voters, picked nominees for the general election. That would allow established politicians to keep the most extreme candidates out of office.
“It would take out the people who are basically in it to be bomb-throwers and not in it to legislate and to get things done,” she said.
It’s happened before, according to Kamarck, when some states denied space on the ballot to the likes of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke or convicted felon and activist Lyndon LaRouche.
It also happened last year, when Virginia Republicans forewent a primary for their gubernatorial nominee. Instead, they hand-picked Glenn Younkin, who, without a primary pushing him further to the right, won over enough independents and Democrats in a left-leaning state to pull an upset and win the race for governor.
“It wouldn't necessarily keep the staunch conservatives or staunch liberals out of the fray,” Kamarck said, “[But] we could have stronger parties doing a better job of vetting candidates before the primary voters got to vote for them. And that would probably give us a better quality of candidate.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.