This paper has demonstrated that very few people are participating in elections that actually decide who represents them in Congress. In 2020, just 10% of eligible Americans cast ballots in elections that effectively decided 83% of Congressional elections.
That is the primary problem: a small minority of voters decide the vast majority of Congressional elections, which fuels political polarization and prevents problem-solving
Those who are eligible and do show up to participate in primaries hold much different views and identify as much more ideologically extreme than general election voters.
As the share of competitive general election contests has decreased over the last several decades due to partisan-self sorting and gerrymandering, partisan primaries have become more consequential. At the same time, primary voters themselves have moved further to the ideological extremes of their respective parties.
As a result, the American people have been left with a Congress incapable of delivering healthy governance or solutions to the most important issues.
Until major systemic reform is undertaken, it is likely incumbents will continue to change their behavior to avoid being primaried, rarely lose to more moderate challengers, and continue to put the interest of their narrow primary electorates over the public interest. Only when what it takes to get (re)elected aligns with what it takes to govern in the best interest of all people will solving problems in Congress improve.
A solution is nonpartisan primaries, where every election matters and every vote counts. Reform has begun to take root: Alaska will become the first state to use top-four nonpartisan primaries combined with ranked choice voting in the general election in 2022. If adopted by more states, this reform can help solve the Primary Problem and pave the way for higher participation, greater competition, and ultimately better governing incentives.