At least six states are considering changing their primary election systems in 2024, with nearly all looking at ways to open up partisan primaries to involve more voters.
Partisan primaries are some of the lowest-turnout and most important elections in the U.S., where gerrymandering has significantly reduce the number of competitive races. Supporters say opening up primaries to all voters would reduce extremism in politics and engage more Americans, while critics say the parties are entitled to nominate candidates as they choose.
Eight states, including Nevada and Pennsylvania, have completely closed primaries, in which only registered party members can vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while many others have some restrictions on who can participate. Sixteen states allow voters to choose a primary to vote in, while a handful of states, including California and Alaska, have a single primary and allow multiple candidates to advance to the general election.
Here’s what’s happening in each state that’s mulling a change.
A bipartisan group of Arizona politicos are mounting a well-funded effort they’ve dubbed “Make Elections Fair Arizona,” which aims to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would require the state to host one nonpartisan primary for all voters.
Nearly 1.5 million Arizona voters are unaffiliated with any party. To vote in a partisan primary, they must affiliate with a party or request a party’s ballot ahead of the election. The amendment would put all candidates onto the same ballot for all voters to consider.
It’s unclear exactly how general elections would work under this system; the amendment gives the state legislature or secretary of state power to decide the process. It does dictate that no more than five candidates can advance, and if there are three candidates, voters must use ranked-choice voting to ensure that the winner has a majority of voters’ support.
According to Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant working on the campaign, the group plans to spend around $5 million on paid signature gatherers and $6.5 million advocating for the amendment’s passage.
In an effort to preempt the amendment, Republican state lawmakers have put two amendments on next year’s ballot that would enshrine the current system of partisan primaries in the state constitution and prohibit the proposed primary system, as well as ranked-choice voting. Coughlin said he was delighted by the binary choice the ballot will offer voters and argued it will make his job easier.
“Our campaign is going to be, ‘Hey, if you like how it’s going, vote for them. If you don’t like how it’s going, vote for us,’” he said. “We are the change, they are the status quo for sure.”
Idahoans for Open Primaries is well on its way to getting a measure on the November ballot in the state. According to organizers, the group’s volunteers have gathered 50,000 signatures to date. They need signatures from nearly 63,000 registered Idaho voters and signatures from at least 6% of voters in 18 of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts to qualify for the ballot. To meet that goal, the group plans to gather 100,000 signatures before the May deadline.
If the measure makes it on the ballot and is approved, it would create a nonpartisan primary for voters in the state and institute ranked-choice voting in general elections.
Jim Jones, a former state attorney general and former state Supreme Court justice, said he was volunteering with the movement because he believed primary elections were allowing a very small number of far-right voters to elect most of the lawmakers in the GOP-heavy state.
“It was the only way I could see that we could straighten out Idaho politics,” he said. “The Republican Party primary was closed in 2012, and ever since that, the legislature has gone further and further to the right.”
Jones said he was “positive” the ballot measure would pass.
“It’s going to really make a sea change in Idaho politics,” he said.
In 2023, Pennsylvania lawmakers advanced two bills that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in partisan primaries in the state, where nearly 1 million voters are unaffiliated with any political party and cannot currently vote in any partisan primaries.
David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA, a group supporting the change, said there was support for the move across the political spectrum, from Donald Trump-supporting Republicans to progressive Democrats.
“The more ugly the partisan warfare becomes, the more turned off people are,” he said.
Advocates in Oregon are gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot. If approved, the amendment would require the state to use nonpartisan primaries in nearly all elections. Presidential primaries would keep their partisan nominating process. Currently, unaffiliated voters cannot vote in a partisan primary in Oregon.
The volunteer group known as All Oregon Votes has gathered a few thousand signatures so far. They’d need 160,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Michael Calcagno, chair of the All Oregon Votes Committee, said the group hoped to attract donors and investment that would allow it to hire paid signature gatherers, without which he feared it would not gather enough signatures in time.
“I don’t think we’re going to create a better future and realize the potential of our state unless we are fully including every single eligible voter in elections,” Calcagno said.
Nevada voters in 2022 took their first votes to approve a constitutional amendment that would open the state’s primaries. Currently, only voters affiliated with a political party can cast a ballot in the primary, a system that excludes the state’s more than 627,000 active nonpartisan voters.
If voters approve the open primary ballot measure again in 2024, the state’s constitution will require a single open primary for all candidates for federal, statewide and legislative offices, and ranked-choice voting in general elections to determine the winner.
Meanwhile, Ohio lawmakers are considering two proposals that would make their primaries more restrictive, forcing voters to register with a party as far in advance as the year before the election.
Bill sponsors argued in a committee hearing in December that closed primaries are better because voters might meddle in the nominating process of another party, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.