NCSL Podcasts

Getting Ready for Primary Season | OAS Episode 200

Episode Summary

NCSL elections expert Ben Williams joins the podcast to discuss primaries just in time for the start of the 2024 contests. Williams explained the different approaches states take to the primary system and some of the election history that brought us to this system we now use.

Episode Notes

While many voters may think of primaries as the warmup act for the general election, many races in this country at the local, state and federal level are decided by primaries. By some estimates, fewer than 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are actually competitive between the parties. In most districts, whoever wins the primary in the dominant party wins the general election. 

The 2024 primaries are right around the corner so on this podcast, we sat down with Ben Williams, an elections expert at NCSL, to talk about the different types of primaries and why primaries are so important. Williams explained the different approaches states take to the primary system and some of the election history that brought us to this system we now use. He also discussed NCSL’s recent publication, “The State’s Primary Toolkit,” that includes extensive background information on primaries’ changes in states since 2000 and a great deal more.


Episode Transcription

Ed:      Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host, Ed Smith. 


BW:     Primaries are just the latest evolution in a long history of parties tweaking and adapting how they choose the nominees for elected office. 


Ed:      That was Ben Williams, an elections expert at NCSL and my guest on the program. The 2024 primaries are right around the corner and I sat down with Ben to talk about the different types of primaries and why primaries are so important.


            While many voters may think of primaries as the run-up act for the general election, many races in this country at the local, state and federal level are decided by primaries. By some estimates, fewer than 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are actually competitive between the parties. In most districts, whoever wins the primary in the dominant party wins the general election. 


            Ben explained the reasons behind this trend. The different approaches states take to the primary system and some of the election history that brought us to this system we now use. He also discussed NCSL’s recent publication “The State’s Primary Toolkit” that includes extensive background information on primaries’ changes in states since 2000 and a great deal more.


Here is our discussion. 


Ben, great to have you on the podcast again.


BW:     Thanks so much, Ed. Great to be here. 


Ed:      Well Ben, as we were discussing before we came on, this is the 200th episode of “Our American States.”  You are a great guest because you’ve been on this show several times and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for being here today. We are going to talk today largely about the current primary landscape in the states which of course we are right on the verge of rushing into in the New Year. But I do find the history of presidential primaries fascinating and part of that is the first political event to rivet me was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The convention is known for many low moments, including nominating Hubert Humphrey who had not won a single primary in his own name. Four years later, George McGovern secured the nomination in large part because of the increased influence of primaries. And of course, it didn’t work out well for ether Humphrey or McGovern or the Democrats in ’68 and ’72, but that’s another story for another time. That is really my warmup just to ask you about primaries and they haven’t always been the way we pick nominees and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.


BW:     Certainly. So, you are absolutely right Ed that this is not the way the parties have always picked their nominees. But I like to think of it as primaries are just the latest evolution in a long history of parties tweaking and adapting how they choose the nominees for elected office. So, I mean if we go back to the very beginning the first president, George Washington didn’t think we should have parties at all. So, clearly there was some assumption at the founding that parties were not necessarily a part of the process. That means that primaries have always been a private activity that is functioning in the public’s face so it is sort of occupying this unique spot in American life. The party selection process initially was the stereotypical smoke-filled backroom that you can think of that would have been common through the early days of the Republic, certainly through the first 50 to 70 years. It wasn’t until roughly the lead up to the Civil War and the Civil War itself that you started to see the conventions become more prominent in American life. Famously Abraham Lincoln won the nomination for president in 1860 by winning the nomination of the Republican party at their convention. He was not the presumed candidate going in, but he was the candidate who took the nomination coming out. 


            And then if you got through history, it’s a lot of conventions in the post-Civil War era moving up through the Progressive era. With the progressives, 1900s and 1910s--and keep in mind, Progressive era as I think most listeners know, it’s not the same definition as progressive now, but at that time, there was a push to open up the process to include more people. So, you started to see these non-binding primaries. They were often run by the parties. They weren’t the kind of primary you would expect today that’s run through a state election apparatus. Think something much smaller in scale. It might only be a handful of the party members who are participating in those primaries. But they slowly become more and more common and they slowly build up in size and in the late 1960’s in particular largely triggered as a result of the Democratic experience in 1968 as you mentioned, the parties really make a commitment to shifting to primaries to include all members of the party in the nominee selection process. We see that shift in the ’60s and ’70s and it becomes entrenched in the ’70s and since then, primaries have been the--I was about to say the primary way. Primaries have been the main way that parties have selected their nominees for the last half century or so. There are still a handful of states that have something like a caucus or a convention for selecting some candidates at lower levels. Caucuses are largely disappearing at the presidential level, but if you asked what is the predominant way of selecting party nominees in the United States for all levels of office at this time, it’s by far in a way the primary. It’s the latest evolution in a long series of changes that were meant to include more and more people in the process.


Ed:      I think people who don’t follow politics too much sometimes think of primaries as like the warmup act to the real election. When in fact, those of us who follow politics know that an awful lot of decisions are made at the primary. Really the election is actually the aftermath because the decision has already been made in those districts. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and whether the polarization has accelerated the situation in this country.


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BW:     It is certainly true that there is a lot of common-sense political norms that have been accepted around the idea of that, the primaries drive polarization. That is a narrative that you will hear a lot if you just do a little bit of googling and a little bit of research. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg problem because while it is certainly true that we are more polarized than we used to be, it’s also true that people themselves have become more polarized and have started to sort themselves geographically based on their political leanings. There is a famous book on this called “The Big Sort”by Bill BishopI would encourage anyone who has never picked it up to either read it or at least get the Cliff Notes version of what the book says. But its thesis is that one of the main drivers of polarization in the United States is that people are just picking up and moving to a place that aligns more closely with their political beliefs. And so, when you think back to the ’50s and ’60s when the parties were much closer together on a host of political issues. There weren’t that many differences. And then as the conservative movement became more prominent in the Republican Party and the liberal movement became more prominent in the Democratic Party, you saw fewer conservative Democrats and fewer liberal Republicans than we did 50 or 60 years ago. 


            You could make an argument, I think reasonably, that one of the reasons that primaries are the main drivers of some elections in the country today is because if you look at a map at the way people are sorted there are just more very strong Republican and more very strong Democratic areas on the map. There aren’t as many purple areas that are close to 50/50 as there used to be. And so, if you are drawing landed districts, which we use in the United States. We divide our representative government by land. We don’t use slates like are common in Europe and some other democracies. You are going to get situations where the land is polarized; the results will be polarized, too. I personally would not be comfortable saying that one is necessarily driving the other. It is probably the case that both play a factor. But I wouldn’t lay all of the blame of the polarization of today at primaries to speak because I think that they are like anything else in life. There is more complexity than meets the eye at first glance. 


Ed:      Ben, we often talk about primaries as if they are all the same thing, but there are actually several types and I wonder if you can kind of break that down for us.


BW:     Sure. So NCSL has categorized primaries into five large buckets. These are for state primaries, federal ah primaries for presidential are usually different, but for the state primaries we’ve got these five buckets. The first and I’m going to go from fewest number of participants to greatest number of participants. So, the first level is closed. Closed means that it is registered members of the political party are allowed to participate in the primary and no one else. The logic goes if you want to participate in the primary, affiliate with that party, you are free to do so. Anyone is free to register with one party or not. The second level is what we call partially closed. That means that the default is that only party members may participate in a primary, but the state law gives each party the option before every election to decide do you want to let people who are unaffiliated who are not registered with one party or the other to participate in that primary and if the party chooses to do so, then unaffiliated voters would be allowed to vote in that primary election. The party gets to change its decision from cycle to cycle. Okay. It could vary across time. The next level is open to unaffiliated voters. This mean that by default state law requires that the parties allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primaries. Colorado is like this. Ed, I’m an unaffiliated voter in Colorado. I get to pick which party ballot I want to pull if I’m voting in a primary. The next level is partially open. So partially open is when anyone can show up on election day and say I would like to vote on any ballot they choose. Let’s say we’ve got Bob and Bob is a registered Republican, according to the state. But Bob walks into the polling place and says I want to vote in the Democratic primary. The election official will hand Bob a Democratic ballot and Bob can go vote it. That action reregisters Bob as a Democrat. And so, there is this triggering mechanism where Bob can change his registration on Election Day, but he is allowed to participate in any primary he wishes when he walks in. So, there is a consequence to the action, but he can pick whichever action. The last category is what we call open. And open means that there is no party registration in that state so you can imagine there isn’t such a thing as a registered Democrat or a registered Republican. So, when people walk into the polling place, they just pick a ballot they want to vote. They vote. They go home. And I will say there are a lot of variations within these buckets. They are not all the same. When we looked at these categories and we wanted to make defined buckets that made it easier to understand the breath of primary policy in the United States, these are the five that we landed on and they are pretty similar to what other organizations use as categorization. 


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Ed:      And Ben, let me just clarify one thing; a question I have and maybe some of the listeners have. Are these all decisions that the state makes, presumably through the legislature, or are these decisions that the state makes sometimes and the party makes sometimes?


BW:     So, the states have the power to regulate the primaries if the parties are running their primaries through the state election apparatus. So, you can imagine a primary election is a private entity choosing its nominees as we mentioned earlier. But most people today when they vote in a primary, they go to their normal polling place that they would go to in a general election to cast a ballot. And so, by using the state’s election apparatus, the parties agree to some of the terms. And you can understand why parties do this. It’s a cost savings measure because they don’t have to run the primaries themselves. There are states that have party run primaries. This does happen in some states. Wyoming and Kansas have used them at the presidential level for example. There are others too. I think a lot of people are familiar with the with the caucuses that are party run. The Iowa caucuses ah of fame or infamy depending on your perspective. Parties have the freedom to make those choses, but if they do, they are going it on their own. And so, a lot of parties choose to work through the state apparatus and accept those limitations.


Ed:      Thanks Ben. We will be right back with the rest of our conversation after this short break.


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            I’m back with Ben Williams from NCSL discussing primaries. Ben, we were just talking about the different approaches states take to primaries and you gave us a pretty exhaustive list. But as I understand it, those are not the only ways states handle primaries. California and Washington are outliers in this regard and I wonder if you could talk about the approach those states take.


BW:     So, you are absolutely right. Those five buckets that I mentioned earlier are the big broad buckets. There is another bucket that we could call other or everything else which are these states that are doing different things. California and Washington use what’s known as a top two primary system. So, if you think about it this way, there is no such thing as the Democratic primary, the Republican primary, the Libertarian primary. There is one primary. All candidates run in that primary. The top two vote getters regardless of party advance to the general election. So, this does a couple of things. One thing it does is it guarantees whichever candidate runs in the general election wins with the majority of the votes because they are going to get over 50% because there’s no way to split the vote with another candidate. It also means that you could have two Republicans or two Democrats on the final party ballot. The people who advocate for these policies tend to say that this a normative good because, as you mentioned Ed, there is a lot of polarization in the United States. So, in a general election why shouldn’t all the voters regardless of what their party affiliation is still have the ability to decide between two R’s and two D’s if it is all but certain that an R or a D is going to win that seat. California and Washington have used that system. It is relatively new. They both adopted it this century so it hasn’t gone through dozens of cycles at this point. But it is, it’s been around for over 10 years in both states.


Ed:      Are you seeing states still making changes or at least looking at changes in how they run their primaries? 


BW:     It’s not like states are doing this every year. This isn’t the number one policymaking topic that we see in the elections team, but it is true that states do make changes. Since 2000 which is I think a good benchmark horizon because most people think of election administration of what they didn’t think about in pre-Bush, pre-Gore and when they thought about it a lot post pre-Bush, pre-Gore. Since 2000, we’ve seen eight states change the way that they choose their party nominees for state offices. So, eight of 50. I don’t know if that is a lot in 23 years, but it’s not like it’s not happening. I would expect every three or four years you would see one state make a change. And I will say most of the states that do make that change change to allow more people to participate in the process. It is not always the case. There are some states that go back and forth. And if you look at the states based on those five buckets that I told you about earlier, this is not something that is polarized by party. There are Democratic and Republican states in every bucket. And there’s not really a trend either way. So, this is something that is more nuance to a particular state’s circumstances than something the parties nationwide are telling the states to do. It is true that when states do make changes, they tend to tweak it to at least allow some more people to participate. You rarely see a state go from fully closed to fully open. But you might see a state go from closed to partially closed or from closed to open to unaffiliated for example.


Ed:      So, I know there’s a few other oddities in addition to these categories. You were on a podcast about a year ago with then-Alaska Representative Jonathon Kreiss-Tomkins and he had been involved with the rank choice voting structure that they instituted in Alaska, which was I thought a fascinating conversation and how that works. I know it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around sometimes, but I thought it was pretty interesting. Can you talk about that approach and any others we haven’t already discussed?


BW:     The Alaska case is really interesting because it’s something that’s new. It just was adopted in 2020 as you mentioned and it was the very first state to adopt what’s known as the top four. So, I just mentioned the top two in California and Washington. Top four is a very similar concept. All the people regardless of party, you are on one primary ballot. But instead of the top two advancing to the general election, the top four advance to the general election. And then the general election is not the primary so that’s not the subject of this conversation, but I think it’s relevant. Which is in that general election the state uses rank choice voting to determine the winner. And so, in recent elections, you would have a situation--Alaska is a red state with an independent streak, I think most people know that. And so, in one of the most recent elections, there were two Republicans, a Democrat and an Independent who made it to that general election for an open congressional seat after the death of former representative from the state of Alaska Don Young. That race saw the Republicans splitting their votes and it ended up in the end that the moderate democrat, Mary Peltola won that election. If it had been outright, she might not have won, but she did win because of rank choice voting. So, it can change what kinds of candidates run and it just changes the dynamics of the race a little bit more because it’s hard to say something like Mary Peltola definitely could not have won under the old system where plurality wins because we just don’t know. We don’t know who would have run in this race had it not been this system. It’s trying to get at what you mentioned earlier which is does rank choice voice reduce polarization in the United States. And I think the research is still working its way through to make a determination one way or another on that. 


            The other states that are doing something different the main one is Louisiana. I think people are somewhat familiar with this. Louisiana has had a what’s known as an ah comer’s primary or a jungle primary for roughly 50 years now. And it’s very similar to the other states we mentioned, but instead of all of the people running on a single ballot and then advancing to some other race. It’s all the people run on a single ballot and if one of the candidates on that ballot happens to get over fifty percent, the race is over. They win outright right then. No need to have a runoff. Someone already got over 50%. If the candidates don’t get 50% percent plus one then the top two vote getters advance to the general election and it works like that. So, you can think of it as a system with a general election and a runoff. Louisiana’s language actually calls it a primary election in the general election. I used to live in Louisiana. They march to the beat of their own drum down there and their election system is a little bit different as well. 


Ed:      So, Ben, one other thing I want to talk about as we finish up here is the NCSL “State Primary Toolkit.”  You folks published this a few months ago. And I wonder if you can walk listeners through what they will find and why you decided to put this together.


BW:     We thought it would be helpful to have this toolkit leading into 2024. Obviously, the presidential race on the Republican side is going to be the thing that drives a lot of the narrative, but there are so many more races at the state level. This is important for people to know about because these are the people who are going to be representing them at all levels of government, not just in the White House. And so, we put together this toolkit. It has a few different resources that listeners might find helpful. One of them is the primaries types that we discussed earlier so you can find out where your state falls in the primary type categorizations that we’ve created. The other is changes since 2000 so you can see whether or not your state has changed over time. Another one is the state versus presidential so those are different the differences between a primary election for the president versus primaries for every other office in your state. They are usually the same, but not always. It’s worth checking that out. The other is primary runoffs. This is not a very common thing, but some of you might be familiar with runoffs and like Georgia and some other more prominent races recently for our state and congressional office. A few states in the South do have runoffs for their primaries as well so worth taking a look at that if you happen to be from somewhere in the South or if you are just curious about it. And then we do have one on turnout in primaries since 2010. The minimum voting age to vote in primaries and the paperwork requirements to run for office. So, you can think of it sort of as your one stop shop. If you know you have a question about primaries; you’re not exactly sure what it is. Go to the “State Primary Toolkit.” It’s a great place to being and if what you’re looking for isn’t there, people can always reach out to me or anyone else in the election’s team and we are happy to provide more detailed information.


Ed:      Yeah, I think even if you are only a minor election geek like I am, taking a look at this, you will satisfy a scratch or itch or two about the politics this year. Hey Ben, thank you so much for doing this and again, I really appreciate you being on this time and all the previous times. Take care.


BW:     Thanks so much Ed. 


Ed:      I’ve been talking with Ben Williams from NCSL about the upcoming primary season and the different approaches states take. Thanks for listening.


You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures. 


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