1.6% of Voters Nationwide Have Effectively Elected 23% of the U.S. House

Beth Hladick
1.6% of Voters Nationwide Have Effectively Elected 23% of the U.S. House

You read that headline right: As of today, just 1.6% of American voters have effectively elected 23% of the House for the next Congress.

How is that possible? So far this primary season, 10 states have held primary elections for 112 House seats. Of those 112, 100 — or 23% of the House — have been effectively decided already in the primaries.

These districts are considered “likely” or “solid” for one of the two major parties in the general election, as number-crunched by the Cook Political Report — making the primary election of the favored party the only “election of consequence.” But just 1.6% of age-eligible American voters have participated in those elections. 

In short, the 10-83 number from last election cycle is trending to be just as bad this year, if not worse.  Across Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania last week, a few troubling outcomes put this trajectory front and center. 

True to the uncompetitive election theme, only one of Oregon’s six congressional districts and two of North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts are rated as competitive in the general election. In North Carolina, just 6.9% of voters cast ballots in the major party’s primary to help determine 86% of the state’s U.S. House delegation (12/14 seats). 

Worse yet, none of the seats were competitive in Kentucky’s six districts, nor Idaho’s two districts, all but guaranteeing the dominant party’s primary winner will represent the district in Washington. 

Though uncompetitive elections are one reason voter turnout is low in a midterm election year, Pennsylvania took things to a new extreme with closed primary laws and plurality nominees. 

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that completely bars independents from participating in partisan primaries. Right away, that means that 1.2 million voters were shut out of primary elections that they still pay for. Per Cook’s ratings, 14 of the commonwealth’s 17 congressional districts are uncompetitive in the general election. 

And here’s where it gets downright egregious: Of those 14 Pennsylvania districts, 11 had unchallenged incumbents (four Democrats and seven Republicans). This, in effect, denied about 6.5 million Pennsylvania voters any say in their House representation.

It’s no surprise, then, that just 8.6% of the commonwealth’s voting public participated in House primaries last week, and even fewer — 3.1% of eligible voters —  effectively determined 82% of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the U.S. House. 

But Pennsylvania’s Primary Problem goes beyond just congressional elections. Because Pennsylvania’s primary elections are “single-winner,” and “plurality-winner,” some outcomes are particularly unrepresentative. For example, though the race is likely headed to a recount, the winner of the Republican primary for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat will win with less than 1/3 of all votes cast. Similarly, the winner of the Republican primary for Pennsylvania governor won with only plurality support. 

The results are shocking, but not unexpected given trends from the last few weeks. In early May, Jim Pillen became the prohibitive favorite to be Nebraska's next governor by winning just 33.7% of the Republican primary vote. The week before that, J.D. Vance became one of the two viable candidates for Ohio's open Senate seat by winning only 32.2% of the Republican primary vote.

If you’re feeling troubled, you’re in good company. Follow the primary season in real time as we pull back the curtain on how our election system disincentivizes voter participation voters on both sides of the aisle, leads to unrepresentative outcomes, and fuels division in our politics. 

And if you’re wondering what you can do about it, look no further than nonpartisan primaries.

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