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Did O’Donnell Just Prove That Primaries Should be Scrapped?

In the wake of Christine O’Donnell’s victory in the Delaware GOP primary, Richard Pildes takes up two questions: Do political primaries fuel polarization and extremism? If so, what can be done about it?

Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law, argues that primaries, especially closed ones, aren’t doing us any good:

The reality of our two-stage election process is that it’s become hard enough to get voters to turn out for the general election. Turnout for primaries tends to be far below those levels. Moreover, those who tend to turnout, at least in some primaries, come not surprisingly from the most activist wings of the parties. Primary electorates with low turnout might thus not even be representative of the Republican (or Democratic) voters as a whole. In addition, if independents are legally shut out of the process, through closed-primary laws like in DE, and independents tend to be more moderate, centrist voters, then primaries will diminish the more centrist forces and empower the more extreme ones.

This outcome could be interpreted as a good thing, Pildes notes. If you worry about voters being ill informed about the choices they are making, for instance, then strongly differentiated political parties make this task easier for voters. But:

[I]f one concludes the current structure of primaries is a problem for democracy today, either because turnout is so low and/or because primaries empower the extremes (and that hyperpolarized politics is not good for American democracy), there are at least two institutional design changes to consider. The most obvious is simply to push more states to use open rather than closed primaries. A more dramatic (and far less plausible, therefore, in practice) approach is to adopt systems of voting like instant-runoff voting. One feature of these systems is that they collapse the primary and general election into one day, so that the low turnout problem of primaries is avoided.

Pildes expands upon his idea of instant-runoff voting on a different website called Big Think, but the general premise is that voters only show up once during an election and rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate obtains a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes gets the ax and voters who ranked that candidate first are now effectively voting for their second choice. The process keeps going until one candidate wins a majority. As a result, argues Pildes, candidates would be encouraged to move towards the political center as opposed to the poles and, once elected, they’d be less beholden to the extreme elements of their party.

If you’re still interested and want to learn more, Pildes also supplies a link to an academic paper of his that delves further into the wonky details.

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