Effect of Primaries on Electoral Outcomes?

Geoffrey Skelley at 538 has a piece on Lee Drutman’s very important new report analyzing the effect of primary elections on general election outcomes. (I mentioned this report in a previous blog post.)

As Skelley explains, Drutman’s report is based on extensive empirical data and questions whether the rules governing primary elections contribute to the increased polarization of electoral results. In this respect, Drutman is running counter to others who argue that primaries are a main driver of skewed politics, causing outcomes artificially distorted compared to a baseline of what voters as a whole actually want. Drutman’s case is very detailed and deserves more consideration than I will give it here.

I want to highlight one point from Skelley’s useful summary of, and commentary, on it. Skelley, like Drutman himself, observes that Alaska’s new “top four” system might be more effective at combatting polarization than previous efforts at primary reform, like California’s “top two” system. (Alaska will use Instant Runoff Voting in its general election to identify the winner among the top four candidates who advance from its nonpartisan primary.) But Skelley appropriately cautions, using Senator Lisa Murkowski’s upcoming 2022 race as an example, that the Alaska system may be no more able to counteract the increased polarization of voter preferences than California’s “top two” system.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that an alternative electoral system, Round-Robin Voting, would handle polarization very differently from either California’s “top two” or Alaska’s “top four” systems. (Round-Robin Voting uses ranked-choice ballots but it calculates the relative strength of candidates differently from the Instant Runoff Voting methodology used in Alaska and elsewhere.) I have written about Round-Robin Voting, including comparing it to California’s “top two” system and Alaska’s new “top four” alternative, as part of a paper arguing that Congress should adopt a “majority winner” rule that would require states to experiment among different majority-winner electoral systems. (California’s top two, Alaska’s top four, and Round-Robin Voting would all qualify, but the combination of partisan primaries and plurality-winner general elections would not.) This video uses graphics to show how Round-Robin Voting treats polarized voting preferences very differently from either the California or Alaska system.

One aspect of the video deserves mention in connection with Skelley’s piece. Skelley observes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, recent studies suggest that primary voters are not ideologically more polarized than general election voters. If this is true, it’s not enough just to “fix” primaries by changing the rules governing them; instead, it’s necessary to consider more broadly how primary elections interact with general elections in eventually producing a single winner from a field of multiple candidates across the ideological spectrum. The comparison of Round-Robin Voting with the California and Alaska systems in the video (and in a separate paper on which this video is based, to be posted shortly on SSRN) assumes that the electorate is the same ideologically for both the primary and general elections; even so, Round-Robin Voting reaches a very different result given the same set of polarized preferences from voters than does either the California or Alaska systems. Therefore, as one considers the implications of Drutman’s important report on primaries, one should consider not only the potential of Alaska’s top-four system and Skelley’s cautionary note about it. Also relevant is the possibility of Round-Robin Voting as an alternative way to address the issue of increased polarization.

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