Eliminate primary elections to restore our strong democracy

Eliminate primary elections to restore our strong democracy
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We must change our present system of nominating candidates for office if we want to make our version of democracy effective again. Our system of government in the United States has developed a major imbalance in the form of a transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch. The power of the executive branch has increased dramatically over the years because of growing weakness of the legislative branch.

Congress is capable of making laws only during brief periods when one political party has control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. During all other periods of time, legislative gridlock prevails on Capitol Hill and precludes the members of Congress from enacting any meaningful laws, except on a short term emergency basis. This legislative impotence creates a void that can only be filled by the executive branch.

Without major changes in the composition of the House and Senate, and the incentives for the members of Congress, our country will experience more adverse effects of the failure of our version of democracy. As federal statutes become increasingly obsolete, the executive branch will have no choice but to try to stretch the power Congress has delegated to it in ways that also put additional stress on the third branch of the judiciary.


The stakes are indeed high for our democracy. We must identify ways of encouraging members to engage in the kinds of compromises with each other and with the president that are essential to the ability to legislate. The starting point should be the process of nominating the candidates for office. Our present method yields candidates who are not representative of the views of a majority of the members of either political party, and it discourages members from entering any bipartisan negotiations that are essential to compromises that lead to legislation.

Primaries are simply low turnout elections. The few voters who choose to participate are the most ideologically extreme members of each political party. As a result, Democratic primaries select the candidates who are furthest to the left, and Republican primaries select the candidates who are furthest to the right. Primaries create a legislative body that is more polarized than the electorate. That greatly reduces the likelihood that the members of the House and Senate can negotiate and reach agreement.

The primary process discourages members from compromising or even trying to compromise. The vast majority of members represent districts or states that are “safe” in the sense that the candidate chosen by her party is virtually certain to win the general election. The only threat to a senator in a “safe” state or a representative in a “safe” district arises as a result of the primary process. If the member compromises or simply threatens to compromise by moving toward the center, she will likely face a primary challenger with an excellent chance of defeating the member by running then to her left if she is a Democrat or to her right if she is a Republican.

The risk of getting “primaried” by a party challenger is the only realistic risk that a member from a “safe” state or district confronts. She knows the risk increases if she moves to the center to compromise, so her only safe course of action becomes avoiding legislative compromises and taking positions on the left end of the ideological spectrum if she is a Democrat and on the right end of the ideological spectrum if she is a Republican.

The better alternative to primary elections would be the methods that both political parties used in the United States until the 1970s and that most of the other democracies in the world use to nominate candidates for office. The leaders of each party choose the candidates based on a combination of a correspondence between the potential values of the candidates and the values of the party, as well as an evaluation of the probability that the potential candidate will win the general election.

Since the dominant views of al the voters who participate in the general election are near the right end of the spectrum of the Democrats and near the left end of the spectrum of the Republicans, party leaders have a very powerful incentive to nominate centrists. The candidates who win the general election then have an incentive to take centrist positions and to compromise with members of the opposing party so that they can claim legislative success. A House and Senate whose members are nominated by party leaders are much more likely to be able to make the bipartisan compromises that are essential to the process of enacting legislation.

Richard Pierce is the Lyle Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University. He is the author of several books on government regulation and administrative law that have been cited in opinions of the Supreme Court.