New primaries, same problems: 5.4% of Ohio voters elect 80% of U.S. House Members in Ohio
The topline: On Tuesday night, Ohio demonstrated the power of the Primary Problem: a small slice of voters determining most of the outcomes for everyone else.
Another week in the primary season is behind us, and now that three states have completed their partisan primaries, 12.6% of the next Congress has effectively been elected in “safe” seats — strong Republican or Democratic districts — where the dominant party’s primary is the determinative election.
But only 0.8% of age-eligible American voters have participated in those elections.
This week, contests in Ohio and Indiana provide illustrative case studies of the Primary Problem, where predictably low-turnout midterm primaries had an immense impact on the representation we can expect to ensure.
Across Ohio, 17.2% of age-eligible voters turned out in the gubernatorial primary at the top of the ticket, but far fewer voters — just 8.7% — participated in U.S. House primaries.
The under-voting is in part a reflection of the fact that five contests had only one candidate in the dominant party’s primary, meaning an estimated 3 million Ohio voters (33%) didn’t have the option to voice support for any other than the status quo.
Even fewer voters — just 5.4% — cast ballots in the major party’s primary to help determine 80% of the state’s congressional delegation (12/15 seats). That’s worse than in 2020, when just 6.4% of Ohio voters effectively elected 94% of the state’s congressional delegation.
Low turnout means that candidates can (and did) succeed with just a small fraction of support from the electorate. In Ohio’s open Senate race, J.D. Vance won the Republican party primary for Ohio’s open Senate seat with just 32.2% of the vote, in a field that included four candidates who each netted double-digit shares of the vote. Vance’s total vote count of nearly 341,000 votes was lower than Tim Ryan — the Democratic nominee he’ll face in November — who garnered nearly 355,764 votes to secure his party’s nomination.
As aptly put by Kevin Kosar in The Hill:
Altogether, Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance — one of whom will be the next senator from Ohio — got the support of a mere 8 percent of registered voters. Talk about a lack of enthusiasm for what was being offered. This was no fluke. Low turnout in Ohio’s primary elections, and America’s generally, is the norm. In off years like this one, it is even lower.
Worse yet, Ohioans will have to return to the polls (likely in early August) for yet another primary election to elect state legislative candidates, as a months-long redistricting feud has not yet yielded a constitutional map. Not only will turnout suffer, but the election will cost taxpayers an estimated $20 million to conduct, and put additional strain on election administrators, poll workers, and extended campaigns across Ohio’s 88 counties.
Unfortunately, similar trends are observable in neighboring Indiana, which also held its primary on Tuesday. Eight out of the Hoosier state’s nine congressional districts are safe for one party, and five districts saw no competition in the dominant party primary, denying voters any say in who represents them next year in Washington.
With no competition in either party’s primary for U.S. Senate, turnout in Indiana’s congressional primaries was just 6.4% of the state’s total voting age population.
The sort of primary issues plaguing Ohio and Indiana have met a solution in Alaska, where voters have begun to receive mailed ballots for the nation’s first “top-four” nonpartisan primary: a June 11 special election for the U.S. House. Voters will later choose a winner from the four finalists via ranked choice voting on the August ballot, also marking the first time that a nonpartisan primary and RCV will be used in combination.
Relatedly, in Nebraska this week, top-two primaries will be used to elect the state’s unicameral legislature. However, partisan primaries are used for all other offices, and it’s likely we’ll see winners advance with mere plurality support.
In the governor’s race, for example, there are three viable Republican candidates — any of whom would be favored to win the general election. But a recent poll found that first, second, and third place are separated by just two percentage points each: 28%, 26%, and 24%. A tiny plurality of voters of one major party essentially determining the outcome of the general election?