How California-style primary reforms can begin to fix what’s broken in Washington

(Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

How California-style primary reforms can begin to fix what’s broken in Washington

Op-ed, Election 2024, California politics

Nick Troiano

March 1, 2024

The average U.S. House district includes about 590,000 eligible voters. How many of them do you expect will vote for their representative in Congress? Assisted? A quarter?

In 2020, the representative of Georgia’s 14th Congressional District was actually elected by 43,813 people who voted for the winner of the Republican primary, just 8% of eligible voters. In 2018, the representative for New York’s 14th district was elected by 16,898 people who voted for the winner of the Democratic primary, just 5% of eligible voters. In these districts, one deep red and the other deep blue, the dominant party’s primaries were the only elections that mattered.

Since their first victories with those small totals, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have significantly influenced the priorities and direction of their parties, pushing them toward ideological extremes. And both MTG and AOC benefit from the prevailing partisan primary system, which heavily favors candidates who can appeal to a meager but passionate base in a lopsided district.

Nonpartisan primaries like California

want to



Tuesdays are a rare exception and can show us the way to national political reform.

Greene and Ocasio-Cortez are far from alone. Unite America research found that only 8% of voters nationwide cast ballots in the primaries that determined 83% of the House of Representatives elections.

How? First, 83% of congressional districts, like AOCs and MTGs, are considered safe for one party or the other. While some of this has to do with gerrymandering, most districts are not competitive due to the increasing partisan divide between urban areas (which lean Democratic) and rural areas (which lean Republican).

You might think that we have a two-party system in America, but in most parts of the country we actually have two one-party systems. In these places, primaries are the only elections of significance.

Second, very few voters participate in the primaries. That’s because 22 states prevent independents from voting in primaries, according to a recent report from the Unite America Institute, disenfranchising 23.5 million registered independents. And this problem is only getting worse: the share of voters not registered with a major political party has increased by almost 20% since 2010.

Primaries not only determine the winners of most elections, but also give disproportionate power to small, fringe factions. The result: more of our elected officials are less representative of America and less willing to work with the other side to solve problems.

Most of us take primaries for granted as an unchanging feature of our politics that has always been with us. But they aren’t. California is now one of four states to avoid partisan contests for Congress.

The most powerful solution to the problems of partisan primaries is simply to abolish them. It is time for the next evolutionary phase in our electoral system to continue the tradition of periodic improvements since the founding of the nations.

Abolishing partisan primaries preserves two important principles: that all voters, regardless of party, should have the right to vote for any candidate in taxpayer-funded elections, and that all candidates must have a majority of votes to be elected to become. Reforming our primaries can give all voters an equal voice and require every candidate to meet the same standard. Most importantly, it can reward, rather than punish, politicians for doing what we elected them to do.

The most common way to do away with partisan primaries to date is to replace them with nonpartisan primaries, often referred to as general or jungle primaries. In a nonpartisan primary, all voters participate in a single primary in which all candidates are listed on the ballot with their self-identified party affiliation. Regardless of party, the top winners advance to the general election and compete for majority support.

The path to primary reform does not require federal legislation or an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it can have a transformative impact without happening in all fifty states. In fact, I believe it will dramatically improve the functioning of Congress if six more states abolish partisan primaries in 2026, bringing the total to ten. And voter-led campaigns in several states, including Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and South Africa. Dakota, in this case, could pass nonpartisan primaries with ballot initiatives.

With twenty senators and several dozen representatives freed from the political margins and able to form new coalitions to actually govern, I believe we would have the critical mass to tackle major challenges that today seem unsolvable.

A democracy that is dominated by extremes at the expense of the majority and that offers division instead of solutions cannot last forever. And the self-reinforcing cycle of hyper-party politics will not end on its own. We should not pit proposals to change course against perfection, but rather against the status quo.

Abolish partisanship


elections are not a panacea. But California and others have shown it is a viable and effective means of reversing our increasingly toxic polarization.

Nick Troiano is the author of

The main solution: save our democracy from the margins

from which this was adapted, and the executive director of Unite America, a philanthropic venture fund that invests in nonpartisan election reform.


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