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Is the current political party primary election system working?

Primary elections consistently have low voter turnout, and election results typically favor candidates preferred by party activists.
NPR News
Primary elections consistently have low voter turnout, and election results typically favor candidates preferred by party activists.

Open primaries, closed primaries, and ranked-choice voting are options for structuring party primary elections.

What if they called for an election and no one took part?

Is that a far-fetched question? According to some observers of the Texas political primary election system, it would seem to be not such a stretch. The Texas open primary system, says a longtime political science professor and political junkie, is geared toward favoring only the most dedicated partisans on either side of the great – and widening – divide in Texas.

The University of Houston’s Brandon Rottinghaus, a 46-year-old Plano native who’s taught political science at U of H for the past 17 years, said the “primary system by design is tailored for candidates to speak only a limited audience. Primary voters in the Republican Party, for example, are older, wealthier and are focused on a narrower range of issues.”

North Texas residents who live in Texas House District 2 are going to the polls soon to elect one of two Republicans to the seat vacated when the Legislature expelled former GOP Rep. Bryan Slaton after Slaton – who hails from Royse City – engaged in a sexual act with an underage staffer after giving her alcohol.

The candidates seeking to take over that seat are Brett Money and Jill Dutton, both Republicans, both conservative and both seeking to outflank each other on the right side of the spectrum. Money and Dutton will face off in a Jan. 30 special election runoff. The winner will serve as a member of the Legislature for the rest of the year. There exists a certain irony in all of this because Slaton was first elected to the Texas House in 2020 when he defeated fellow conservative -- Republican state Rep. Dan Flynn -- in a hotly contested primary. Slaton was able to run to the right of Flynn, seemingly with little wiggle room on that end of the spectrum.

But wait! Then the Republicans – and Democrats – will have another primary election on March 5, when the rest of the state goes to the polls to nominate candidates for various county, state and federal offices.

“These primaries just don’t speak to a lot of voters, to a broad cross-section of voters,” Rottinghaus said.

The culprits are many, Rottinghaus said. He singled out legislative gerrymandering, which Republicans have used to their maximum advantage since taking control of the Legislature in the mid-1990s. The law requires the Legislature to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years after the Census is taken. Legislative House and Senate districts are redrawn essentially to benefit the political party that controls the Legislature.

Given the Republican strength in Texas, Democratic primary races are becoming more rare, said Rottinghaus. One Democratic primary of note, he said, is occurring this year in Senate District 16, a Dallas district represented by Nathan Johnson, who is being challenged by Victoria Neave Criado, who is surrendering her House seat for a chance at serving in the Senate.

“Democratic numbers have shrunk in Texas, while the number of Republicans challenging Republican incumbents is increasing,” Rottinghaus said. He added that Democratic primary candidates seek to do in reverse what occurs in GOP primaries, with candidates seeking to outflank each other on the “far left.”

There once was a time in Texas when Democrats ran the political process and gerrymandered districts to protect Democratic incumbents against Republican challengers. It worked – most of the time! One notable failure of Democratic gerrymandering occurred in the 1994 congressional election in the Texas Panhandle.

The 1991 Legislature gerrymandered the 13th U.S. House district by splitting Amarillo into two House districts. The 13th Congressional District included the northern portion of Amarillo, while the 19th Congressional District included Amarillo’s southern half. The 13th – with its trove of Democratic voters – was represented in Congress by Democrat Bill Sarpalius, who was elected to the House in 1988; the 19th was represented by Republican Larry Combest.

When the ballots were counted, though, in November 1994, Republican challenger Mac Thornberry – who ran Combest’s staff – ousted Sarpalius from what was supposed to be a safe Democratic seat. Thus, gerrymandering doesn’t always work.

Are there ways to bolster voter turnout? Rottinghaus believes ways do exist to get more moderate Texans involved in the primary system.

Texas operates under an “open primary” process, in which voters go to the polls on Primary Election Day and choose which party to cast their votes. “Our system tends to exclude more voters than include them.” He said the system we have in Texas tends to place greater power in the hands of fewer people. “When you have more people voting, you can dilute some of that power,” he said.

One option for improving the system has been tried in other states that have what Rottinghaus calls a “ranked primary system.” It allows primary voters to rank their candidates seeking a party’s nomination. The no. 1-ranked candidate finishes first, with second-, third- and other candidates finishing in order. If a candidate fails to reach the 50% plus one vote majority to win outright, then, say, the top three candidates engage in an “instant runoff.” That would continue until a candidate obtains a majority vote.

“Having everyone get a second choice has been shown to produce more moderate candidates,” Rottinghaus said.

Rottinghaus – who earned his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Northwestern University – dismisses the prevalence of what he calls “strategic voting” in which voters from one party cast ballots in the other party’s primary; theoretically, they are seeking to nominate the weakest candidate in that party’s field. “Republicans seemingly only want Republicans voting in their primary,” Rottinghaus said, adding that in Texas, “Democrats seem to favor the open primary system we have.”

As for voters who live in regions where one-party presence is so powerful that the other party fails to produce any primary battles, Rottinghaus said that “you are forced to go where the action is.”

This election year, as it has been for many years in Texas, most of the electoral “action” is occurring within the Republican Party.