Research 09/30/2018

Election Practices & Options

In August 2018, Wisconsin held primaries to select party candidates for the November 2018 general election in the same way it has for more than 100 years.

Voters could participate in one party primary and cast a single vote in each race. Candidates receiving the most votes, not necessarily a majority, moved on to the November general election. Wisconsin’s turnout in November elections is typically among the highest in the nation. However, the number of citizens voting in primaries, both here and elsewhere, is typically much smaller.

August primaries generally see turnout of fewer than one in five eligible voters. The reasons are varied and at times hotly debated; however, the lack of engagement with the partisan primary system among so-called ‘independents’ might play a role. Public opinion surveys typically show that about 40% of Wisconsin’s electorate do not identify with a major party.

In general elections, these independents often split their votes among candidates from different parties. They may vote for a Republican for governor and a Democrat for state senate, or vice versa. Yet, to participate in the fall primary, they must choose a party ballot. In other words, an independent voter must select one party primary over another, or not vote. When independents don’t vote in a primary, it becomes a low-turnout election.

A second reason for low turnout is lack of competition in some races. Citizens don’t take the time to vote if high-profile races have just one candidate on the ballot. Of the 116 races for state assembly and senate this year, 31 had only one candidate.

In part to address these issues, California and Maine have moved away from traditional voting methods in recent years. While not without critics, blanket primaries and instant runoff voting have the potential to increase primary turnout, make elections more competitive, and give voters more choices.

Blanket Primaries

Beginning in 2012, California joined Nebraska and Washington in using a version of a blanket primary, featuring candidates from all parties on one ballot. Voters make their choice in each race, with the option of switching parties depending on the office.

The top two vote-getters in each race advance to the general election in November. In a blanket primary, it is possible that candidates from the same party face off against each other in the November general election. During the six years the system has been in place in California, this has happened many times. In 2016, two Democrats emerged from a hotly contested race for U.S. Senate.

To Wisconsinites, who are used to seeing candidates from opposing parties on the November ballot, this might seem odd. However, the blanket primary can increase turnout and provide more voter options. The ability to cross over in the primary would be attractive to independents, raising overall turnout. And, the only time candidates would not have a choice in the general election is in a single-candidate primary.

The blanket primary system can also nudge elected officials toward the center of the political spectrum. Consider a hypothetical district that votes 60% Democrat and 40% Republican. In the primary, two Democrats advance to the general election, one with 35% of the vote and one with 25%. The remaining 40% of the vote is split evenly among three Republicans.

To win in the general election, the Democratic candidates have to garner some Republican votes. The theory is that in order to do so, the candidates will have to move toward the center of the political spectrum. Critics argue that the system is detrimental to third party candidates, who rarely make it past the primary. Moreover, party leaders generally consider the blanket primary an infringement on the party’s ability to ensure they have a candidate in the general election.

Instant Runoff Voting

A second alternative voting method is instant runoff voting (IRV), which was instituted this year in Maine for certain races. A constitutional provision does not allow this type of voting in the general election for governor or state legislature. However, it was used in the primary. Sometimes called ranked-choice voting, IRV requires voters to rank candidates. For example, Wisconsin had 10 Democrat candidates for governor on the August primary ballot. Under IRV, rather than selecting one candidate, voters would have ranked the candidates from one to ten. If no candidate receives a majority initially, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped. Votes are then re-tabulated using the second choice from ballots that supported the dropped candidate. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority.

This year, Maine’s Democratic primary for governor featured seven candidates. After four rounds of dropping candidates and re-distributing votes, Janet Mills garnered more than 50% of the vote and advanced to the general election. She was the first choice on just a third of the ballots. IRV’s main impact is in elections with more than two candidates. In a five-person primary with no single candidate likely to approach a majority of the vote, candidates need to appeal not only to their supporters, but supporters of other candidates.

For a candidate on the far left or right, this often means moving toward the center. In recent years, California and Maine have changed voting methods, moving away from traditional primaries and single-vote systems. In California, there has been debate as to whether blanket primaries have delivered on their promises. In Maine, it is too early to tell if IRV will have significant impacts. Only time will tell how these changes might impact the overall voting process in these states.