The Speakership Saga and the Need for Nonpartisan Primaries

For those of us concerned about the capacity of Congress to function on behalf of the American people, we should be glad that the House of Representatives finally has a new Speaker three weeks (and a day) after Kevin McCarthy was removed from the speakership by an unprecedented motion to vacate. But for those of us concerned about the extent to which the composition of Congress is genuinely representative of the voters who elect its members, the removal of McCarthy and his eventual replacement by Mike Johnson is confirmation that the nation’s electoral system urgently needs fundamental reform.

Specifically, the ordeal of the last few weeks demonstrates that the existing system of partisan primaries under current conditions of asymmetrical polarization–where Republicans have moved further to the right to the point that MAGA extremism is the dominant faction within the party–causes extreme Republicans to win their party’s primary against a more moderate Republican alternative and then, in a Republican-leaning district, defeat the Democrat in the general election. But a majority of all the district’s voters in the general election–Republicans, Democrats, and independents–would have preferred the more moderate Republican candidate defeated in the primary over the MAGA extremist sent to Congress to represent the district.

Arizona’s second congressional district illustrates this problem and how it affects the House’s current deficiencies. In last year’s midterm elections, a Trump-endorsed MAGA extremist—Eli Crane—won the Republican primary with only 36% of the vote in a race with seven candidates. The runner-up with 24%, Water Blackman, was a more traditional Republican serving in the state’s legislature who, unlike Crane, repudiated Trump’s election denialism

In the general election, Crane beat the Democrat, 54% to 46%. Had Blackman been the Republican nominee, he almost certainly would have done even better, pulling some more moderate voters away from the Democrat. In any event, it’s clear that a majority of all the district’s voters—Democrats, independents, and Republicans—would have preferred Blackman to be their representative in Congress rather than Crane. 

Yet Mr. Crane went to Washington, where he became one of the eight Republicans who voted to vacate Kevin McCarthy from the speakership and thus precipitated the governance crisis in the House. If Blackman had been the one sent to Congress to represent the district, there is no reason to think that he would have participated in this obstructionist stunt.

The same story can be told about other congressional districts. Indeed, an analysis of all eight members of this “chaos caucus” found that six—including their leader, Matt Gaetz—won their first primary election with less than a majority of the vote. Gaetz, like Crane, received only 36% to win his first primary. Andy Biggs, another MAGA extremist from Arizona, won with less than 30%. It is irrefutable that the voters in these districts, like Crane’s, would prefer a less extreme Republican to represent them if only the electoral system gave them a chance to express this preference. 

Now that Johnson has been elected Speaker and at least the short-term incapacity of the House to legislate has been resolved, one can turn to a broader point about the damage done to the House–and to representative democracy–by the system of partisan primaries preventing a majority of general election voters from choosing the candidate whom they most prefer. Johnson’s election as Speaker, especially after the MAGA wing’s refusal to accept the Republican conference’s vote for Tom Emmer in favor of Johnson, is an irrefutable sign that the balance of power in the House has moved towards Trump and his MAGA movement.

But that is not because the voters prefer the House to be dominated by MAGA members rather than more moderate Republicans. Instead, there is every reason to believe that if House members were elected in a system that involved nonpartisan rather than partisan primaries, the composition of the Republican conference in the House would be such that it would support a more moderate leader, like Emmer.

The best evidence for this comes from analysis of Alaska’s new “top 4” system, which uses a nonpartisan primary to identify four finalists for the general election, with the winner elected by a form of ranked-choice voting. A new report from Unite America documents the social science research showing that this new system tends to elect more moderate Republicans than the traditional system of partisan primaries followed by a plurality-winner general election. Citing previous research from the R Street Institute and a paper presented at APSA’s annual meeting this year by political scientists Glenn Wright, Benjamin Reilly, and David Lublin, the new report details the way in which Alaska’s nonpartisan primary facilitates the election of moderate Republicans over extremists. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection to the Senate last year, defeating a Trump-endorsed candidate who almost certainly would have won a traditional partisan primary, is only the most prominent example. Most striking is six state senate seats in last year’s midterms, all of which were won by more moderate Republicans against more extreme opponents, including Cathy Geissel’s comeback victory over a “Trump-endorsed hardliner” (to quote Wright-Reilly-Lublin’s description of her opponent), who had beaten her previously in a traditional partisan primary.

Perhaps even more important than these anti-extremism electoral outcomes is the salutary capacity for functional legislation that has resulted. The Alaska legislature elected in 2022 in the first exercise of this new system has formed bipartisan governing coalitions of the type that eluded Congress during its speakership vacancy. Given that Congress continues to face serious legislative challenges, including a looming government shutdown next month, one can only assume that Congress like Alaska’s own legislature would be more effective at legislating if all its members were elected using Alaska’s new system. Indeed, this is the main point made in an opinion column in Governing published today by Richard Barton of Unite America to accompany its new report.

Many believe that gerrymandering is the main culprit for the kind of dysfunction in the House exhibited during the speakership crisis. While eliminating gerrymanders undoubtedly would reduce some of the MAGA extremism in the House, it is important to understand that redistricting reform cannot be a complete cure to the problem.

The Arizona districts won by Crane and Biggs were not the consequence of partisan gerrymandering. Arizona has a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission, whose authority to draw congressional districts was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As long as partisan primaries determine which candidates appear on the November ballot, fairly drawn districts can yield unrepresentative results. Indeed, the Senate—which can’t be gerrymandered because its elections are statewide—is subject to the same problem of partisan primaries preventing general election voters from choosing the candidate whom they most prefer. Last year, Ohio and North Carolina elected new Trump-endorsed senators—J.D. Vance and Ted Budd—but the general election voters in both states would have preferred non-MAGA Republicans who were defeated in their state’s GOP primary. In Ohio, Matt Dolan was the non-MAGA Republican whom a majority of all the state’s voters would have preferred instead of Vance. In North Carolina, former governor Pat McCrory was defeated in the GOP primary by Budd, one of Trump’s election denialists in the House at the time, and there is no doubt that if all the state’s voters in the November election had been given a choice between McCrory and Budd, Democrats combined with moderate Republicans and independents would have elected McCrory instead of Budd.

Thus, if one worries about the ascendancy of election denialism in Congress in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection–which is now made most vivid by the election of a Speaker who played a leading role in attempting to deny Joe Biden of his rightful victory (as Rick observed earlier today)–then it’s essential to understand the imperative of replacing partisan primaries with some form of nonpartisan system like Alaska’s.

After the January 6 insurrection, I said to anyone willing to listen that two electoral reforms were necessary to protect American democracy from the threat of Congress subverting the legitimate outcome of a future presidential election. One was to reform the antiquated Electoral Count Act, and thankfully Congress accomplished that. But the other was to adopt electoral reform along the lines of Alaska’s nonpartisan system to redress what I then identified as the “Portman problem”–the replacement of non-MAGA Republicans, like Rob Portman, with MAGA acolytes of Trump, as J.D. Vance turned himself into on the way to becoming Portman’s replacement. The easiest way for Congress to induce states to adopt Alaska-like nonpartisan primaries is to enact a majority-winner requirement for congressional seats, as I wrote in March of 2021. Alas, no bipartisan coalition emerged in Congress before the end of 2022 to enact this essential reform.

Now we have Speaker Mike Johnson, with whatever potential consequences may ensue. The good news is that the Electoral Count Reform Act is in place. If it is followed in Congress on January 6, 2025, its provisions protect against the kind of election subversion attempted by Trump and his supporters on January 6, 2021 through the use of spurious objections to valid electoral votes entitled to be counted. But those who study the details of congressional procedure concerning the counting of electoral votes know that each house of Congress passes a concurrent resolution to follow the requirements set forth by statute. There should be every expectation that the House will act similarly before the next joint session of Congress required by the Twelfth Amendment. One doesn’t wish to contemplate what might happen were the House to balk at this responsibility.

Meanwhile, we have to hope there is momentum in the states to adopt Alaska-style reforms. The first step will be for Nevada to give final approval to a “top 5” variation on the Alaska system, which cleared a first hurdle under the state’s constitution last year. Then there will need to be efforts in other states that permit similar ballot initiatives to have their voters approve comparable measures.

Those who know my work on this topic are aware that I think there are forms of ranked-choice voting that could be an even greater antidote to the election of unrepresentative extremists than the particular method of ranked-choice voting incorporated into Alaska’s system. Future reform efforts that build on Alaska’s success would be wise to consider these closely related, but potentially more advantageous, alternatives.

But first things first. There needs to be increased recognition of the way that partisan primaries deprive voters of the opportunity to elect candidates whom they most prefer–and as a consequence we have a Congress populated with more extremists than the voters really want.

Mike Johnson is the choice of the Republicans in the House, but those Republicans are not the ones their districts would most wish to send to Congress. Until we recognize this flaw, and change the system to repair it, American democracy regrettably remains unrepresentative and at risk.

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