Opinion: Let’s change our costly system of primary voting

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Future changes could save money and yield faster election results.

The hotly contested 2022 midterm elections are again over everywhere except Georgia, where Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker are competing in a runoff to determine who will represent the Peach State in the Senate.

For shame. Runoffs are famously low-turnout elections and, once again, will cost the state millions of dollars. Not to mention, some have called for closed primaries, which would abuse taxpayer funds even more. For those tired of endless, costly elections, there is a potential solution: implement blanket primaries and start using instant runoff elections.

Currently, a majority of states hold open primaries that allow for those who aren’t affiliated with one of the major parties to participate in the process. Unfortunately, Georgia, along with Alabama, Colorado and Wyoming, is considering “closing” their primaries in next year’s legislative sessions. The motivation behind closed primaries is simple: The parties don’t want their opponents to meddle with the results.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

It’s not a concern without merit. In Georgia, 37,000 voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary in 2020 participated in the 2022 Republican primary.

But closing primaries will not prevent strategic crossover voting and hurts the voters and the parties. In an increasing number of districts, the primary is the election that truly matters, creating a strong incentive for voters to register simply with the dominant party within their district regardless of their own political leanings. Forcing voters to register with a party they don’t like doesn’t benefit voters and only serves to water down the parties.

Closed primaries are also fiscally unjust. All primaries are paid for with taxpayer dollars, including money from millions of independent and third-party voters prohibited from voting in closed primaries. Funding private elections with public dollars is blatant cronyism. If the parties want to hold closed primaries, they should pay for them. Otherwise, all taxpayers should be welcome to participate.

Rather than closing primaries, states should put all candidates, regardless of partisan affiliation, on one primary ballot, also known as a blanket primary. These elections can come in different forms, such as Louisiana’s blanket general election with runoffs as needed, Washington and California’s Top Two systems, or Alaska’s Final Four model. This last option offers the greatest promise to voters.

Blanket primaries would also better use taxpayer funds by ensuring that parties are not disenfranchising voters while simultaneously taking their money. In fact, employing blanket primaries with ranked-choice instant runoffs would save money by replacing costly runoff elections that take place weeks after the first round of balloting — just like what is taking place in Georgia.

Finally, and perhaps most relevant, blanket primaries would remove the incentive to interfere in party primaries. Crossover voting wouldn’t happen because all candidates would appear on the ballot together. Rather than jumping into a rival party’s primary, voters will be free to choose their favorite candidate. With everyone on the same ballot, there’s less reason to prop up an unpopular candidate from the “other” party.

This system would set the stage for an instant-runoff general election. Instead of holding a separate election weeks after the fact, as Georgia is doing now, voters could just rank candidates on Election Day. Then those rankings could be used to determine the winner rather than having to hold an entirely new election. If Georgia implemented these changes, voters would not only get faster results but the elections would be more secure.

Neither of these ideas is novel or represents substantial changes from the existing system. Georgia already employs open primaries and runoff elections to ensure majority support for a candidate. In fact, Georgia also already uses instant runoffs for military and overseas voters, an overshadowed feature of Georgia Republicans’ 2021 election reforms. Blanket primaries with instant runoffs combine the primary elections of all parties and combine the general and runoff elections for all voters.

Georgia can save millions of dollars, get quicker election results and ensure that every eligible voter can participate in the electoral process. Other states have already recognized the value of blanket primaries and instant runoffs. Georgia voters would benefit from joining their ranks.

Ryan Williamson is a resident fellow in governance at the R Street Institute. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.