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Lee Rasch: The Problems with Partisan Primaries

Lee Rasch, La Crosse Tribune | Published on 7/31/2022


There is something seriously wrong with the partisan primary system in our country. A good idea has become misused. The primary election model was a product of the Progressive Era in 1890 to 1920. The goal was to replace the corrupt process of payoffs and favoritism, and to make the delegate and candidate selection processes more transparent and inclusive.

One of the earliest efforts was made by Wisconsin Governor Robert La Follette. Frustrated with the backroom politics in the 1904 elections, he drafted legislation that allowed Wisconsin voters more say over convention delegate selection. Subsequent states followed suit, so that by 1916, 25 of the 48 states had presidential primaries and stricter rules binding delegates to popular election results. The primary election process was a dramatic improvement.

Unfortunately, the primary election process has become distorted in recent years. Consider the situation in the neighboring state, Illinois. More than $216 million was spent in the June 2022 primary election in Illinois…an election where the voter turnout was only 20%. This is an outrageous sum for a primary election.

But the story gets even more bizarre. Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker, a Democrat, along with the Democratic Governors Association, have spent more than $30 million on the Republican primary in hopes that conservative State Sen. Darren Bailey will be Pritzker’s opponent in November, rather than the more moderate candidate, Aurora Mayor Richard Irwin. Pundits projected Bailey to be a weaker candidate… too extreme to beat Pritzker in November. Bailey handily won the June primary election over Irwin and he will now face Pritzker in November.

If that were not enough, the situation in Illinois is playing out in other states as well. Political groups and nonprofits aligned with the Democratic Party have spent nearly $44 million on advertising in Republican primaries across five states. The goal?… to boost the profile of far-right candidates in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Maryland.

Why would the Democratic Party take on this position? It seems that they may be betting on the track record for endorsements by former President Donald Trump. According to Ballotpedia, of the 137 candidates endorsed by the former president in 2022, 93% won the primary election. However, so far, the endorsed candidates are 0 for 10 in the general election. Of course, time will tell what the outcome will be in November.

What about Wisconsin? Candidates for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin have spent $17.6 million leading up to the 2022 primary election. Furthermore, according to OpenSecrets.org, more than $16 million of outside funding has been spent, pre-primary, on the Wisconsin Senate race by political action committees not directly associated with the candidates. And more than $24.5 million has been spent, pre-primary, on the Wisconsin Governors race.

In other words, a staggering $58.1 million has been spent leading up to a primary election where (based upon historic patterns) a projected 22% voter turnout might be expected.

And it is not just a problem involving money. It is worth noting that, according to the Cook Political Report, fewer than 10% of the November 2022 races for the U.S. House of Representatives are competitive. The rest are considered “safe districts” for the general election. As a result, the primary election assumes an outsized importance compared to the general election…the election when most people vote. Furthermore, primary election voters tend to be the most passionate partisans. Consequently, a moderate elected official who is willing to work across the aisle may ultimately face a primary election opponent…being “primaried” for party disloyalty, even if a majority of the constituents stand to benefit from the action. It is important to recognize, both political parties are using the primary system to strengthen party loyalty, even if it divides Americans further apart.

So, are there any efforts to address the problem situation with partisan primaries? Actually, there are. This past year, bipartisan legislation was introduced for Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin (SB250/AB244). This legislation is designed to implement non-partisan primaries for congressional positions in Wisconsin. The top five vote getters, regardless of political party, would automatically advance to the general election.

This will eliminate the condition of an incumbent being “primaried” for working in a bipartisan manner, and it reduces the incentive for massive spending in primary elections. SB250/AB244 did not come up for a vote in 2022. However, there are growing indications that legislative leaders in both parties are frustrated with the current primary election process. The prospects for advancing this legislation in 2023 are promising.

It is also worth noting that Wisconsin is not alone in this effort. Alaska has already adopted this model. Nevada has approved the Final-Five Voting question for a binding statewide vote in November. And Georgia is forming a statewide committee to promote Final-Five Voting in that state.
Business leader Katherine Gehl, a champion for Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin and nation-wide, believes that getting even five states on board can have an impact. In a closely divided political climate, getting 10% of the U.S. Congress to be more open to bipartisan solutions can make a difference. Gehl states, “Our goal is five by 2025.”

Perhaps the partisan primary process has reached the sufficient low point needed to drive action. Remember, the change during the Progressive Era did not happen overnight. It took time to build momentum. Perhaps the opportunity is developing for a new progressive era. Fixing the broken partisan primary system is a good place to start.