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Why some states are turning to nonpartisan primaries

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

There's a lot of discontent with America's political system, including with primary elections. And many experts say party-based primaries shut out independent voters and make political polarization worse. That is why some states are turning to nonpartisan primaries. NPR's Ashley Lopez explains.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Modern day primary elections were invented about a hundred years ago. Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says, at the time, they were considered a progressive reform aimed at getting rid of widespread corruption in the old way of picking candidates.

KEVIN KOSAR: But after a hundred years of experimentation with this, we see that there are clear problems with this system, not least of which is that it produces candidates who frequently aren't particularly representative of the average voter.

LOPEZ: And there's a slew of reasons why experts think this is happening. Jeremy Gruber is with an advocacy group called Open Primaries. He says the first issue is that the electorate has gone through a massive sea change in the past decades. Gruber says when party primaries were first invented, almost everyone was either a Democrat or a Republican.

JEREMY GRUBER: Now, independents are the largest and fastest-growing group of voters in the country. Over 50% of our young people, the next generation of voters, Millennials and Gen Z voters are independent.

LOPEZ: Currently, 16 states have completely or partially closed primaries, meaning you have to be a member of the party to vote in them. Gruber says the growing number of unaffiliated voters is creating problems in these places.

GRUBER: You're starting to see states that shut out independent voters have primary elections that are more and more insular and are producing candidates that are less and less representative because fewer and fewer people are able to participate in them. And that's throwing the whole system of democracy and elections out of whack.

LOPEZ: Of course, primaries aren't the only reason for polarization in American politics. Voters have also been sorting themselves further apart, which is why polarization is a problem in both open and closed primary systems. Lately, there's been a push for non-partisan primaries. Andrew Sinclair, an assistant professor at Claremont McKenna College, says these kinds of primaries allow all voters to weigh in on all candidates.

ANDREW SINCLAIR: Voters are able to choose for every election amongst all of the candidates. So you're liberated as you go down the ballot. So I could vote for Republicans in three elections and Democrats in four of them or something like that.

LOPEZ: Currently, five states have non-partisan primaries - California, Washington, Nebraska, Alaska and Louisiana. In these places, either the top two or the top four vote getters, regardless of party, move on to the general election. Gruber says there's evidence that non-partisan primaries create more responsive candidates because they aren't as tied to political parties.

GRUBER: They can run based upon entirely how they see their constituency and the issues that their constituency prioritizes. So you're starting to see a lot more representative politicians coming out of these systems.

LOPEZ: But Sinclair says it's hard to say whether non-partisan primaries have actually created more moderate or representative candidates. Research so far is pretty mixed. But he says it's undeniable that they've changed how campaigns run. Many politicians are in noncompetitive states or districts, so their first worry is a primary challenger. But in non-partisan primaries, he says, candidates might have to appeal to independents or members of the other party, and this might create more competitive races. For example, Sinclair says, in a deep blue state, voters might have to choose between two Democrats in a general election.

SINCLAIR: Possibly the more moderate Democrat would have an advantage in that election or perhaps the more competent or the more pragmatic.

LOPEZ: Although Sinclair says an all-Democratic general election might alienate conservative voters. But Kevin Kosar of AEI says ideally states, regardless of some of these trade-offs, would be more experimental with how they structure elections so that politics can become more palatable to voters.

KOSAR: Certainly a number of these electoral reforms aim to either depolarize or at least disincentivize gratuitously bad or toxic behavior, which in many cases is rewarded by the current system. So if you change the incentives, the politicians are going to run differently. And I think a lot of people like that.

LOPEZ: There are already more states considering nonpartisan primaries. There are tentative proposals in South Dakota and Idaho, for instance. And Nevada voters will weigh final approval of a nonpartisan system next year. Ashley Lopez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.