Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sam Gilman: How to fix America’s primary elections

Posted by Blake Wright on October 09, 2014 at 12:26 PM


By Sam Gilman and Senator Olympia Snowe | Providence Journal - 9/23/2014

Earlier this month, voters in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Delaware cast ballots that will determine the outcome of many of November’s elections.

In Rhode Island, a high number of voters turned out to the polls, in large part because of excitement about this year’s high-profile Democratic gubernatorial primary. Normally, high turnout would be cause for jubilation, but in this case it means that only 21 percent of registered voters went to the polls, just 3 percentage points higher than a similar midterm in 2010. 


In Massachusetts, fewer than 17 percent of voters turned out. There, a similarly high-profile gubernatorial race in 2006 attracted participation from 25 percent of voters. In Delaware just 7 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans voted on Sept. 9.


As a former senator and a current college senior, both dedicated to bringing more Americans into the political process, we believe that primary elections must be more popular and more inclusive.


Low primary turnout weakens American democracy. On average, only 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots in primary elections. This means key groups, including party activists, political insiders, and mobilized single-issue campaigns, often dictate the results of primaries.


Because of gerrymandering, partisan divides, and other political forces, primary elections — elections where the turnout numbers often drop below 20 percent nationally — too often establish who will represent a district or a state in Congress. According to a Bipartisan Policy Center calculation, only 101 out of 435 House districts are “competitive.” In other words, in many cases low-turnout primaries can actually play a bigger role than general elections in determining who will represent a district.


That is why we have both committed to working to boost primary turnout. All states should increase turnout to 30 percent by 2020 and 35 percent by 2026.


To accomplish this requires a combination of reform and organizing. Last year, the Bipartisan Policy Center created the Commission on Political Reform to study, among other issues, ways to increase turnout in elections and engage more Americans in the political process. as one remedy to the partisanship and gridlock that has captured Washington in recent years. The commission, as well as Common Sense Action’s Agenda for Generational Equity, advocate for sensible policy reforms that will let us advance towards these goals.


We believe that all 50 states should increase registration by opening up primaries, allowing for online voter registration, identifying and contacting eligible unregistered voters, and ensuring accurate voter lists by investing in efforts to compare state voter rolls. 


Open or semi-open primaries let independents and members of the opposite party vote. This is especially important given that there are an increasing number of independent voters. In fact, there are now more independents than Democrats or Republicans, and that trend is increasing, as 50 percent of Millennials are now independents. 


In addition, we support efforts that aim to mobilize, organize, and turn out voters from both parties. This fall, Common Sense Action is striving to register and ensure that 10,000 millennial voters get to the ballot box. And as we look toward 2016, we envision additional efforts to secure greater participation in primary elections. 


Finally, we support the idea of a national primary day. Imagine a national Super Tuesday in non-presidential election years. No policy change could make a more dramatic impact. A national primary day would let grassroots campaigns and national media concentrate the entire nation on the elections. Political parties will be incentivized to choose better candidates and be more inclusive.


As two voters who care deeply about the future of this country, we ask you to advance reforms and participate in organizing efforts that will make our primaries more inclusive and our government more democratic.


Former Sen. Olympia Snowe co-chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. Sam Gilman is a senior at Brown University and the co-founder and CEO of Common Sense Action, a bipartisan Millennial advocacy group with chapters on 40 college campuses across the country.