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The plan to save America by killing the partisan primary

It’s on the ballot in Nevada, and it may be coming soon to a state near you.

An illustration of a generic ranked-choice ballot shaped like the state of Nevada. Bita Honarvar/Vox; Getty Images

Can much of America’s current political dysfunction be traced back to one feature of our system: the partisan primary? And if so, what should be done about that?

Nevada voters will be tasked with assessing those questions when they go to the polls Tuesday, to vote on “Question 3” — a proposed overhaul of the state’s election system that would effectively kill the partisan primary (the elections in which Democratic and Republican voters choose their party nominees).

Instead, Nevada would have a nonpartisan primary, from which the top five candidates of any party would emerge to the general election. The general election would then be conducted under ranked-choice voting (which lets people vote for multiple candidates for each office, ranked in order of their preference).

This is not just about election wonkery. The proposal’s backers say it could help fix American politics by weakening the forces of partisanship, polarization, and extremity. The two parties, they believe, have become captured by their bases’ most extreme elements, who can discipline anyone breaking from the party line through a primary challenge.

Indeed, when assessing how the Republican Party has moved into the hands of Donald Trump, it’s impossible to miss the importance of the primary. Some Trump critics have retired rather than face the primary electorate again: “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take,” then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said in 2017. Others have taken on Trump anyway and, with a few exceptions, have faced defeat. The most common strategy employed by GOP incumbents, though, was to become a strong Trump supporter to preemptively prevent losing renomination.

But while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has defied Trump on several high-profile issues, did draw a right-wing challenger this year, she did not have to worry about getting primaried. In 2020, Alaska voters approved a similar reform to the one on the ballot in Nevada. That effectively guaranteed Murkowski would make it to the general election, rather than being taken down beforehand. Her case — and her GOP challenger Kelly Tshibaka’s — will go before the full Alaska electorate next week.

And yet progressives worried about the future of American democracy aren’t so enthusiastic about these reforms — in part because they’d likely weaken the left wing of the Democratic Party as well. Progressives have had their own success at taking down incumbents in primaries that elevated rising stars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to Congress. They hope to punish Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for opposing much of President Joe Biden’s agenda this year with a primary challenge in 2024. There is even speculation that fear of a primary challenge has made Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer focus hard on pleasing the left during Biden’s term.

If approved, these reforms probably wouldn’t live up to all their supporters’ ambitions — few reforms do. But they would present a clear path by which politicians of both parties disfavored by the party bases could make it to the general election. And for those who believe the rise of the Trump right presents a clear threat to US democracy, reforms that could weaken that movement’s power are probably worth at least some thought.

How voting would work in Nevada if Question 3 is approved

The Question 3 proposal would make two major changes. First, it would blow up the system in which the two parties hold separate primaries to choose their nominees — substituting instead one nonpartisan primary in which any registered voter can vote, and from which the top five vote-getters move on to the general election.

Many politicians now live under the fear of “getting primaried” — annoying their party’s base voters, losing a low-turnout election those voters dominate, and never even making it to the general election ballot. For instance, any potential GOP critic of Donald Trump must reckon with a looming primary dominated by strong Trump supporters and assess whether to fall in line, fight a likely losing battle, or simply retire. It’s a powerful incentive.

This reform would essentially ensure any incumbent, as well as any significant primary vote-getter, would get to make their case on Election Day. That could mean just one Democrat and Republican move on, or multiple candidates from one or both parties advance. Five candidates going forward also means more options than California and Washington’s nonpartisan top two primaries provide.

Now, if you have multiple candidates in a typical general election, there’s a possible problem — someone could win with merely a small plurality in a split field. So the second big change in this proposal is to conduct the general election with ranked-choice voting. This system lets voters rank several candidates for each office in order of their preference, rather than voting for just one. When votes are tallied, the low-performing candidates are gradually eliminated, and each vote for them is reallocated to the voter’s next-ranked candidate. This reform, supporters hope, will help the candidate truly preferred by a majority of the electorate win. (I wrote a detailed explainer last year on how ranked-choice voting works.)

The measure is funded mainly by a collection of bipartisan or nonpartisan businesspeople, many from outside the state. Yet most organized political interests in the state hate the proposal — the opposition includes leading Democratic and Republican politicians, progressive and conservative activists, and even minor parties.

Tuesday’s vote won’t settle the issue in Nevada — the state’s constitutional amendment process requires voters to approve the measure twice before it goes into effect, so if voters approve it now, there would be another big battle over it in 2024. And while the reform would apply to elections for congressional, legislative, and top state offices, it wouldn’t apply to the state’s presidential nominating and general election contests.

Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, the proposal’s backers aren’t going away. They’ve already succeeded in getting a similar reform implemented in Alaska, and they hope for ballot initiative campaigns in as many as eight other states in 2024. Their idea could be coming to a ballot near you very soon.

The “rational centrist” behind final five voting

Nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting are not new ideas. California and Washington both use a nonpartisan top two primary, while Maine, New York City, and other cities use ranked-choice voting for some elections.

But the combination of a top five primary and ranked-choice voting for the general election is the brainchild of Chicago business leader Katherine Gehl, who branded it as “final five” voting and provided the organization and much of the fundraising (her own and others’ money) behind it.

Her father had built the family company, Gehl Foods, into a dairy-based food product manufacturer with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, and Katherine took over as CEO in 2011 before arranging its sale to an investment firm in 2015. Gehl grew up as a Republican, but was impressed by Barack Obama and became a bundler for him. Obama appointed her to be a board member of a government entity investing in developing countries. Disillusioned with gridlock in Obama’s second term, she turned her attention to the political system.

“I would call myself a rational centrist,” Gehl told me in an interview. “What I saw after Obama went to the White House is that candidates can’t deliver in this system. And it was just clear it all traced back to the primary.”

Indeed, most members of Congress are in safely Democratic or Republican districts and are therefore effectively immune to general election pressures. Their primary election — often a low-turnout affair dominated by strong partisans or ideologues — is their only real election. And even those in swing districts still have to survive their primary before making it to the general election.

“The root cause of our political dysfunction is that November elections in this country are for the most part meaningless,” Gehl said. “Most November voters are wasting their time, which is not only profoundly undemocratic and unrepresentative, it’s the reason we can’t solve our complex problems and make necessary trade-offs.” She continued: “In the existing system where most people are elected and answer to only 8 percent of their side, they are forbidden to do the work of having those policy discussions and innovating across the aisle, of negotiating and making a deal.”

This dysfunctional system is propped up, Gehl believes, by the two-party duopoly and the large arrangement of entities supporting them, from donors to campaign professionals to ideological or partisan media to activists and organized interest groups. She began writing about this alongside Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, and they began pitching final five voting as their solution. An election reform group, FairVote, had previously written about the possibility of linking a top four primary and ranked-choice voting, which Gehl and Porter cited in a 2017 report.

Now, Gehl’s organization, the Institute for Political Innovation, is working with local groups to seed the idea in various states — starting in Alaska and Nevada — and she’s helped win over other deep-pocketed tech and business donors to contribute, including major Democratic donor Reid Hoffman, major Republican donor Ken Griffin, and Rupert Murdoch’s liberal daughter-in-law Kathryn Murdoch.

“Everyone says there is no silver bullet. I think this is as close to a silver bullet as you can get,” said Gehl, arguing that final five voting’s implementation would mean politicians become “freed from the tyranny of the party primary” and newly able to work as problem-solvers and consensus builders. Her goal is that five states will be using the system by 2025, and said initiative campaigns in California, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming are possible in 2024.

What are the criticisms of final five voting?

Not everyone is sold on the idea. The critics are legion, and they include most politicians and political groups in Nevada. We can think of these criticisms as falling into a few categories.

Defending parties or primaries: Before even getting into the nitty-gritty policy details, lots of people simply don’t want to weaken the parties, defang primary challenges, or allow purported centrist problem-solvers an easier path to victory.

The party establishments want to be able to run a coherent general election campaign with one nominee for each office, rather than the multiple Democrats or Republicans per contest this system could advance to Election Day. “That’s a basic function of political parties, essentially determining who gets to compete for office,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, if you’re a progressive who believes enacting policies on the left is very important, and that elected Democrats are often too centrist, then you’d view the primary challenge as an important and valuable tool — as would conservatives in the GOP. And you wouldn’t be too enthused about proposals to elect more centrists. The system seems most likely to help candidates who could have trouble winning traditional primaries like, say, Kyrsten Sinema, Liz Cheney, Jeff Flake, Mike Bloomberg, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Lieberman, or Andrew Yang.

Part of this is about values. It’s a “fantasy,” Will Pregman of the progressive group Battle Born Progress told me, that “quote-unquote ‘moderate’ candidates are more desirable and accurately reflect the population that votes.” But it’s also partly about leverage. Activists really like the current primary system because turnout is low and it’s easier for them to influence the outcome, according to Damore.

Worrying about its effects on voters: The well-funded TV ad campaign promoting the proposal has focused overwhelmingly on the issue of letting independents vote in the primary, and avoided the more wonky territory of ranked-choice voting. But that reform has long had its critics, as I wrote last year.

For one, many fear that less privileged voters — voters who don’t speak English, who are lower-income, or who are less educated — will have more difficulty with the new system, if they haven’t been sufficiently informed about how to use it. Perhaps they may be more likely to have their ballots thrown out due to improper rankings. Or perhaps they may be less likely to use all their ranking slots, making their ballots disproportionately likely to be discarded in a later round. Or perhaps they’ll be deterred from turning out at all (though in places where it has been adopted, it hasn’t resulted in consistently lower turnout).

“In our voting rights coalition, we have over 25 organizations that work in faith communities, AAPI communities, Latinx communities, Indigenous communities, and none of those organizations were brought to the table and asked, ‘What is the impact this is going to have on your community?’” Emily Persaud-Zamora, the executive director of Silver State Voices, a civic engagement group that coordinates with Nevada progressive organizations, said after citing the above concerns. “That in itself is unacceptable.”

Another issue is that ranked-choice ballots in the US tend to take a long time to count. Election administrators need to determine the order of candidates so they can eliminate them one by one and reallocate their ballots accordingly. They also have to decide whether to release a preliminary reallocation tally well before every ballot is counted (as New York City did last year). With the threat of election denial from the right, a protracted count could lead to lower confidence in the results.

Critiquing the specific design: Separately, there have been some questions from voting systems experts about whether this system is properly designed, as Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

The issue is that ranked-choice eliminations can often eliminate the voters’ true consensus choice, if that person starts off with fewer first-choice votes. That appears to be what just happened when this system was used in Alaska’s House special election. Voters overall preferred the moderate Republican Nick Begich over both conservative Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Mary Peltola in head-to-head matchups, but he was eliminated before either of them. This has happened elsewhere, too. Foley suggests a technical fix — tweaking the rules so that the order of elimination is based on a candidate’s total votes, not just first-choice votes.

This reform could have a real impact but likely won’t totally transform the system

Political scientists I interviewed were skeptical about the grander claims that final five voting would be able to solve so many of America’s political ills.

For one, few believed the primary system is really the main cause of polarization and dysfunction. “Primaries existed for a long time without producing MAGA winners,” said Drexel University political scientist Jack Santucci. The forces pushing the parties apart are much broader — journalist Ezra Klein has argued they trace back to a fundamental polarization of politics around voters’ core identities — and primaries are merely one arena in which they play out.

Even if partisan primaries went away, pressure from party leaders, donors, ideological media outlets, activists, and politicians’ social circles will remain. “When I look at the things that make party elites powerful, this doesn’t do a whole lot to change them,” said Florida State University political scientist Hans Hassell. “What I suspect will happen is you end up seeing parties and party elites adapt to it.”

Would-be politicians inclined to defy all this rather than just falling in line with one party or the other would need to find a support base somewhere. Yet voters less inclined to feel strongly toward one side or the other also tend to be less engaged with the political system in general. And it’s not clear their preferences really do incline toward a centrist, “problem-solving” business type. “The existence of this voter that is going to produce moderation itself is in question,” Santucci said.

Still, it seems indisputable that final five voting would achieve one key thing: It would let incumbents who run afoul of their party base get past the primary and make it to the general election (since you’d have to be a pretty incompetent incumbent to fall to sixth place in a primary). It does not necessarily ensure that those candidates will be more likely to win the general, but it lets them get there and present their case to voters.

It’s no accident that Alaska is the first state where a version of this was put in place. Murkowski, the incumbent moderate Republican senator, has long had a tense relationship with GOP primary voters. She actually lost her primary in 2010 but then subsequently ran as a write-in candidate and won the general election, keeping her seat. Yet after Trump became president, Murkowski defied him on several high-profile issues, so trouble appeared to loom ahead for her in the 2022 primary.

Scott Kendall was Murkowski’s lawyer during her write-in campaign, and believed the closed primary system was “broken,” he said. So in 2019, he began researching potential alternatives, and eventually found a report by Gehl and Porter proposing what was, at the time, final four voting. (They changed the number to five later.) Kendall told me he was already thinking along these lines, but the report “sorted what I was trying to do and was more eloquent than the actual thoughts in my head.” He put together a ballot measure on the topic, and eventually Gehl donated to the cause and was “one of the thought leaders I talked to during the journey,” he said.

Voters approved Alaska’s top four primary and ranked-choice general election in 2020, giving Murkowski an all-but-guaranteed ticket to the general election, and relieving primary pressure on her from the right. Three months later, Murkowski voted to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial.

So for Democrats and progressives who think preserving democracy is important, and that the GOP is being increasingly captured by extremists, these reforms deserve serious consideration. The reason Trump was stopped from stealing the 2020 election was largely because enough Republican elites defied his pressures. Yet open Trump critics have increasingly retired or been purged from the party. Election deniers have won GOP nominations in hundreds of contests across the country. The trends aren’t encouraging, and a future crisis could lie ahead.

Yes, final five voting would also weaken the power of the institutional Democratic Party. Yes, it would take away leverage progressives currently have over centrist Democrats. But if that comes along with helping the GOP become less of a pro-Trump personality cult — might that be worth the trade-off?

Update, November 7, 1:30 pm: This story was originally published on November 4 and has been updated to note the role of the group FairVote in linking a top four primary with ranked-choice general election voting.