You Will Probably Believe How Stupid the Primary Calendar Is

I’m preparing a more in depth pair of posts for next week to start digging into the “missing piece” in Federal elections. The obsession with the top-of-the-ticket elections—that this blog is guilty of—hurts American democracy. The Presidency is designed to be at something of a disadvantage in policy-making compared to Congress, though the concentration of power into a single individual counteracts that. I’m going to start digging into the Congressional elections. (I’d love to do the states too, and maybe I’ll hit the governors…but I am but one man.)

Primaries solve a problem in electoral politics. They let minority groups—minority here in the sense of political interests, not necessarily identity—decide who is going to represent them. In parliamentary systems, this is done by having members of parliament work this out after the fact, forming multi-party coalitions at the parliament. Here in the US we form the coalitions before the election and then run them. The big downside is that it adds an election to the calendar and elections require voter time and energy, a finite resource. While the parliamentary system is more elitist, it is also less taxing.

I’m not here to argue for one or the other, however, just to point out that primaries are taxing. So imagine my surprise when I found out that many states have more than one primary*. That means in a presidential year, voters can be asked to come out three times.

Here is the list of states that have their state elections on a different day than their presidential elections. An asterisk indicates that they have a caucus rather than a primary.

  • Alaska*
  • Arizona
  • California**
  • Colorado*
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii*
  • Idaho*
  • Iowa*
  • Kansas*
  • Kentucky*
  • Louisiana
  • Maine*
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota*
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska*
  • Nevada*
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Dakota*
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Utah*
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming*

It is no small wonder that we end up obsessed with the presidential election. The calendar is set up to make that happen. By my count, a full 35 states, more than half, require voters to go out twice to shape their party and a third time for the general. I’m hardly one to advocate less engagement, but that’s nuts. The parties should require that the state franchises hold just one primary. (I’m all for doing away with Caucuses, which for logistic reasons cannot coexist with state primaries.)

The upside is that it will almost certainly improve engagement in the candidate-picking process in those states. The other subtle effect is that it will make the presidential race start later because one of the reasons for the split is that early voting states often don’t have well-formed races for the smaller state elections. There is no reason to reward states for a less democratic process and make more incentives to start the presidential race 2 years before the general. Finally, it will help unskew the perception that the Presidency is higher stakes than the the races that actually determine which laws get written.

One vote per citizen, one primary per state.




*A few examples I list are actually primaries and caucuses on different dates. On the one hand, yes, that is different. On the other hand, still taxing.

NOTES: Idaho only has a caucus on the Democratic side, but the GOP still comes out on a different date from state elections. Kentucky only has a GOP caucus, and the Dems come out on the same day as the state primaries. Only the Democrats have a caucus in Nebraska; the GOP comes out on the same same day as the state primaries. North Dakota’s GOP votes at the same time as the state primaries, but the Dems have a caucus on a different day.

**There is a recall election because, well, more elections!

Wisconsin has an additional judicial primary as well and has the judicial general election on the day of the state and presidential primaries.

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