Political Incentives Are Broken. Let’s Fix Them.


Incentives matter. If you want to change someone’s behavior, change their incentives. Car insurance companies figured that out a long time ago. If you get a speeding ticket, your premium is likely to go up. Drivers slow down. 

Political incentives matter, too. One of the first lessons I learned in Government 101 came from David Mayhew’s 1974 book, Congress: The Electoral Connection. In it, he described members of Congress as “single-minded seekers of reelection.” It’s safe to assume members will do almost whatever it takes to get reelected. 

That’s not a problem in itself. It’s reasonable for someone to want to keep their job; however, the problem is that what it takes to get reelected is increasingly incompatible with what it takes to govern –– namely, to put the public interest ahead of any partisan or special interest. Our leaders’ political incentives are fundamentally broken.

There are many reasons why political incentives are totally out of whack, but the primary reason – and the primary problem in our politics today – is partisan primaries. 

Nothing illustrates the “primary problem” more than the fact that the last Congress had an average approval rating of 20 percent, yet over 90 percent were reelected. A failure to work together to solve the nation’s problems is rewarded, not punished. That’s in large part because the voters who are actually doing the electing are not those who turn out to vote in November; instead, most power rests with the tiny sliver of voters who vote in party primaries months earlier. 

In the 2020 election, according to a new report on the primary problem by Unite America, a nonpartisan organization which I lead, only 10% of eligible Americans nationwide cast ballots in primary elections that effectively decided the winners in a supermajority (83%) of Congressional seats. Just 10%. The tail is wagging the dog in our political system. 

Last election, eight members of Congress lost primary elections –– nearly all from more ideologically extreme challengers on both the left and the right. The message is clear to members of Congress who represent the over 80% of districts that are solidly Democratic or Republican: you don’t need to do a good job representing your district to keep your job. In other words, the only way to lose reelection is to fall out of step with your primary voters and attract a more extreme challenger. 

For example, Rep. Lauren Boebert defeated former Republican Rep. Scott Tipton (CO-3), claiming he wasn’t conservative enough, despite his endorsement from President Trump. Soon after her election, Boebert was among those who encouraged the Capitol insurrection on January 6th, tweeting “Today is 1776” the morning of the attack. 

In a post-election survey of Boebert’s district conducted by Citizen Data, the Unite America report found that Republicans who voted in the primary were significantly more likely (60%) to identify as “very conservative” than either Republicans who only voted in the general election (35%) or all general election voters (25%). These primary voters’ voices deserve to be heard, but the system allocates them outsized influence over the entire election.

Not only is the primary electorate unrepresentative of the general election electorate, but most states also restrict participation based on party affiliation. Nearly 11 million independent voters are prohibited from voting in ten states with closed primaries. Another 19 states prohibit party-affiliated voters from participating in the other party’s primary. 

In short: if you’re a Democrat in a red district, or a Republican in a blue district, you effectively get no say.

Ultimately, both parties’ bases have become the new party bosses. And it’s working out terribly for our politics. The core dysfunction of Congress today is that most members are not trying to narrow our differences to solve problems, but doing quite the opposite: exaggerating our differences to score political points and win reelection. If we want to change Congress’ behavior, we must change its incentives. 

The fix is simple: replace partisan primaries with nonpartisan primaries. Rather than both parties holding separate primary elections, there would instead be a single primary open to all candidates and all voters. The top finishers advance to the general election, and whoever earns majority support wins. 

There is a precedent for this. Alaska became the first state to adopt “Final-Four Voting” through a ballot initiative last November, which combines a top-four primary with “ranked choice voting” in the general election. California, Washington, and Nebraska currently use a top-two nonpartisan primary.

The advantages of nonpartisan primaries are numerous. They make every vote count and every election matter. They force candidates to campaign to the entire electorate based on their ideas, not just pander to their own voters based on their partisanship. They level the playing field for independent and third-party candidates. 

Most importantly, nonpartisan primaries transform the incentives of elected officials by liberating them from being “primaried” by the extremes and holding them accountable to all of their voters. 

We often hear that the latest election is “the most important of our lifetimes” only for the new people or party in power to perform as poorly as the last or worse –– particularly in Congress –– because the broken system and its incentives stay the same. Let’s instead make nonpartisan primaries the most important reform of our lifetimes, and see how quickly our politics can really change. 

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