One Simple Change to the Primaries Could Make Our Politicians Better | Opinion

An analysis of the recent Georgia primary by The Associated Press made headlines when it found 37,000 formerly Democratic voters voted in the Republican primary for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Deeply conservative Raffensperger became something of a liberal hero by standing up when former President Donald Trump called looking for non-existent votes.

By doing so, the Democrats were not necessarily voting for who they wanted, but rather for the best candidate that the Republican Party had to offer for an office they knew Republicans would eventually win.

It's a phenomenon that's becoming more and more common. While we're taught in grade school that our leaders are elected on the second Tuesday in November, in this gerrymandered and divided country, 80 percent to 90 percent of races are decided in the primary.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church for Martin Luther King, Jr., on Jan. 20, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Often called "strategic voting" or "party raiding," crossover voting itself was for many years more of a bogeyman than a legitimate phenomenon. Mainly, it was trotted out by partisan insiders — of both parties — to try to restrict voter mobility.

In Georgia, which along with 19 other states has nonpartisan voter registration, everyone can choose which primary to participate in, but they are still party affairs. And when you look at the history of Secretary of State elections in Georgia, you find that Republicans have held the office for the last 15 years and are expected to hold it for the foreseeable future. Any voter who wants to have an impact on who holds that office would need to vote in the Republican primary. That's not crossover voting, that's direct democracy.

Comprehensive research analyzing such claims in 2010 concluded "there is very little crossover voting in general in United States primaries."

That has started to change and, despite the pundits' assertions, it has less to do with Trump and far more to do with an aging election system that offers voters fewer choices at the ballot box. Most general elections — with the exception of high-profile statewide contests that grab headlines — are completely uncompetitive. Only a handful of seats in Congress are considered competitive in the general election this year, according to the Cook Political Report. Forty percent of state legislators will run unopposed in 2022.

Our patchwork system of partisan primaries was devised 100 years ago when most voters were members of the two major parties. That's no longer the reality in America today. Independent voters are now the largest or second largest group of voters in half the states that require registration by party. And the U.S. is becoming more geographically polarized. Red states are getting redder and blue states are getting bluer.

More and more voters, independents as well as voters who aren't members of the dominant party in their state, no longer have a clear path towards a meaningful vote. Oklahoma offers a stark example. Voter registration is 51 percent Republican and 31 percent Democrat and 18 percent independent. But you wouldn't know it from their elections. Republicans control supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, every major statewide office, and every member of the state's congressional delegation. What's a member of the 49 percent to do?

Voters are starting to understand that the fix is in and are more and more desperate to find new ways to cast a vote that matters. In states with closed primaries, that means growing numbers of voters are changing their registrations to join the dominant party. In deep red Idaho this year, 10,000 Democrats and independents joined the Republican Party just before the cutoff for changing affiliation. In deep blue New York, more than 88,000 Republican and independent voters switched their affiliation to Democrat ahead of last year's primary. Voters are forced against their will to join a party they don't believe in simply to be able to cast the only ballot that matters — in the primary.

By doing so, voters are trying to choose the candidate that best reflects their values and those of their community from the limited choices available in the party that is predetermined to win the general election.

Frankly, I'm surprised more voters didn't cross over in Georgia. Those voters who did were straining for a meaningful vote in a system that makes it increasingly hard to find one. Party primaries, which taxpayers fund, are just not serving most Americans anymore. That's why four states — Nebraska, California, Washington and, most recently, Alaska — have enacted nonpartisan primaries so all voters vote for the candidate of their choice in every race. It's a good start. But many more states will need to follow.

Jeremy Gruber is the senior vice president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization, and an activist with 25 years of experience working in the civil rights and political reform arenas.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.