Nebraska’s Primary Problem, with Unite America’s Tyler Fisher
Election policy expert Tyler Fisher, from the nonpartisan reform group Unite America, joins Jim Vokal to discuss why state and federal election systems often incentivize policy outcomes that leave most Americans dissatisfied, and what Nebraska can do to give the majority of voters more say in who represents them in Lincoln and Washington. A transcript of this episode is available below.
Jim Vokal: In November, many Nebraska voters will decide who represents them in the Unicameral in Lincoln. But some of the key races for state and federal offices are effectively decided in the primary election, in which only a relatively small share of the electorate participates.
My guest today says changes to Nebraska election laws could make the voting process more competitive and make sure the majority of voters get a chance to weigh in at the polls. Joining me now is Tyler Fisher, the Senior Director for Policy and Partnerships at Unite America, a nonpartisan election reform organization. Tyler, welcome to Nebraskanomics.
Tyler Fisher: Thanks, excited to be here.
Jim Vokal: All right, you recently published a piece with Laura Ebke from our team in the Lincoln Journal Star calling for Nebraska to rethink its approach to primary elections, and you listed a number of potential reform options. Let’s start off by having you explain some of the reasons for that and how our primary elections could be improved from what we’re doing now.
Tyler Fisher: Thanks, Jim, excited for the conversation today. Let’s start with what are the problems associated with our partisan primaries. First, when you zoom out and you look nationally, you see that more than 85% congressional districts are safe for one party or the other. That means political pundits don’t see any pathway to one party beating the other party come November. The result of that is that the partisan primaries are the election of consequence for the vast majority of our elections, but very few people participate in them. Nebraska has had about 25% participation earlier this month, which is about five points better than most states are doing. But even fewer voters are actually deciding the outcomes of American elections, because only those voters who participate in the dominant party primary that effectively have any say in who goes to Washington or who represents them as governor.
And oftentimes there isn’t even a candidate opposing the incumbent in a partisan primary, so that’s why nationally in 2020, only 10% of Americans effectively elected 83% of our congressional representatives. But it’s not just how few voters are electing the vast majority of Congress, it’s about the consequences of that problem for the member of Congress and the incentives that they face. Research shows that incumbents have figured this out and they’re more attentive to the special interests that spend money in partisan primaries. They fear retribution from primary voters if they compromise to solve problems with members of the other party, and new research finds that one-fourth of the rise of polarization over the last four decades is due to the increased threat of a primary challenge. And so, it’s first really important to diagnose what are the problems associated with the parties in primaries before we talk about the solutions, which for me start with replacing partisan primaries that serve parties with nonpartisan primaries that serve voters. The difference being, whether or not all candidates compete and whether all voters can participate. So in an ideal world all candidates appear on the same nonpartisan primary ballot and all voters can participate in it. Nebraska has this system for its Unicameral, though parties can’t designate which candidates on the nonpartisan ballot are part of their primary, and I actually think an improvement would be to allow party labels to be on the nonpartisan primary ballot so voters know who’s a part of which party, but to rejigger the system so that all voters can vote for any candidate that they think best represents them in the partisan primary.
Louisiana uses a pretty similar system. In fact, they actually don’t have a traditional primary, they host what they call a Jungle Primary in November. If one candidate gets 50% in the primary, the election is over. If not, they host a runoff in December. And then what I’m watching most is the Alaska system. Alaska voters in 2020 approved a top four nonpartisan primary, where four candidates will move on to the general election, where whoever earns a majority of votes will be elected. If you’re in a safe Red district, you might have the opportunity to choose between two, three, or four Republican candidates. If you’re in a safe Blue district, the same thing is true, you might have a choice between a handful of Democrats in November. This will also likely create pathways for independent and third party candidates to compete. And to return to the final the point I made on incumbent behavior, really does liberate U.S. senators, governors, and state legislators to govern in the public interest.
Jim Vokal: I appreciate that. Let me start this next question by saying, from all accounts, we have very secure elections in Nebraska. But there’s always some political hay made over election integrity or even just election interference so what is your answer to those who would say we all know the rules right now, “It ain’t broke don’t fix it,” or even that electoral reform represents a way to unfairly change the rules of the game for the benefit of those who just can’t win under the current system.
Tyler Fisher: Well, first, if somebody said it ain’t broke and it didn’t need to be fixed, I’d be asking them what country they’re living in, or what politics they’re watching. Congressional approval rating is below 20%. Trust in government is at all times lows. Government is not solving the major problems facing Americans, and everybody knows that. Electoral reforms aren’t about increasing the political power of one party over the other. They are about changing the incentives to actually solve problems and put the public interest over partisan and special interests. But to react to your first point, you’re totally right the Left is increasingly worried about voter suppression, and the Right is increasingly concerned about voter fraud. The reality, however, is that the 2020 election was the highest turnout election in American history. More than two-thirds of us participated. It was also the most secure election in American history according to President Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, so you know, the concerns from both sides are a little overstated.
But that doesn’t change the premise of your question, which is true, which is that at a time when there’s serious questions about election integrity, changing the way we vote does feel kind of far-fetched to people. But it’s important to realize that in order to get to the ultimate changes that we desire in our political system, it’s not just about changing who we elect, but it is about how we elect them. And that’s why I think electoral reform can be a powerful solution to the moment we find ourselves in.
Jim Vokal: All right, in terms of having an open nonpartisan primary for statewide officers, I can see worries coming from multiple sides. The conservative Republicans might not like it because more moderate candidates might win the primary, Democrats might not like it because they may not get to run a candidate in November, and the same could be said for third parties. Unless voters take the opportunity to vote for third parties in much larger numbers, they’ll never advance to the general election. So, what would the people with these objections be missing?
Tyler Fisher: The key thing they’re missing is that elections are about good representation. It’s not about whether or not one party wins, or one type of candidate wins. If it’s true that in a safe Red district Democrats and independent voters effectively have no say in who goes to Washington, or who represents them in the governor’s mansion, those voters should have a say because that will lead to better representation. The same thing is true of Blue districts and Blue states. The reality is statewide candidates in California, New York, and Washington don’t have to represent Republican or independent voters, because they know the partisan primary is their way to power. The same thing is true in Red states like Wyoming, and Alabama, and Nebraska, where voter candidates know that the only election they have to worry about is the partisan primary. And so, I kind of reject the premise of the question, because it’s not about “Well, is it gonna be this type of Republican who wins, or this type of Democrat who wins?” It’s about changing the system so that the candidate who’s supported by the broadest swath of his or her voters is ultimately the one who gets elected.
Jim Vokal: All right, you mentioned a few states. I want to walk our listeners through what states have changed their systems and what maybe Nebraska can learn from those states.
Tyler Fisher: Yeah, so I called out a few. I mentioned Louisiana earlier. Alaska passed this policy in 2020 to be used for the first time in 2022. What we’re seeing in Alaska is a higher number of candidates running for office—more than ever before. In fact, for their U.S. House race, they have 48 candidates running right now. We are seeing, as evidenced by the legislature working with the governor on a number of policy priorities, we’re actually seeing incumbents recognizing the impact of the policy. There’s candidates who were legislators who were primaried in 2020 under the old system running for re-election under the new system, so we’re seeing a lot of positive impacts, and I’m really excited to watch what happens in Alaska this year. Alaska—the second kind of component of their reform is Ranked Choice Voting, which is another reform that I talked about with Laura in our op-ed.
Ranked Choice Voting is a reform that can give voters more voice, choice, and power by allowing them to rank their candidates in order of preference, and an instant runoff guarantees a majority winner. Both the Left and the Right has used this. The state of Maine has used it in 2018 and 2020. The Virginia GOP just used it to nominate Glenn Youngkin as their gubernatorial candidate, who went on to win last November. The Democratic Party used Ranked Choice Voting in presidential primaries in five states in 2020, so it’s been being used in primaries to guarantee majority winners, and when you think about the Nebraska governor’s race last week, there were seven or eight candidates for governor, and the leading candidate ended up emerging with just 34%. So Ranked Choice Voting is a solution that could guarantee majority winners. It’s also used in Utah in 23 different cities, so Ranked Choice Voting is solving problems in cities by actually getting rid of primaries altogether, and just hosting a Ranked Choice Voting general, which is saving taxpayer dollars. So, there’s real momentum behind these ideas all across the country.
Jim Vokal: I think it’s appealing to be able to rank the candidates based on your preference because there’s always the worry in a competitive field that if you vote for the candidate you really want, you might be creating a spoiler effect that helps the candidate you don’t support. Explain—what do voters who have tried Ranked Choice Voting think about it, and then is there any evidence of voters changing their voting strategies based on this approach?
Tyler Fisher: Yeah, well, you’re definitely right that’s one of the key value propositions of Ranked Choice Voting. “I want to vote for this candidate but if I vote for them it’ll help the candidate I like least,” because there’s this middle candidate that is kind of would be my second choice. Ranked Choice Voting gives voters the ability to make that ranking. What your question was—what do voters think of it? They love it! Voters historically have enjoyed the ranking process. They’ve found it easy to use, and they want to use it again. This has been true, and exit polls have been done in San Francisco, in Utah, and in New York City, and voters do report using the rankings because it allows them to vote for the candidate they like most, it allows them more power in the voting booth, it gives them more choices to choose from, so voters who use Ranked Choice Voting like it a lot.
Jim Vokal: All right, moving past what the ballot and voting process would look like, I’m going to give you this final opportunity to make your closing argument. What’s your philosophy, Tyler, or aspiration for how electoral reform can better represent voters or improve the quality of governing?
Tyler Fisher: So, let’s take those things in part. How can it better empower voters? We’ll know voters are more empowered if they show up to vote more often. States with nonpartisan primaries see about 10% higher turnout than other states. We’ll also know that voters have more choices, if there’s more candidates on the ballot, if there’s more choices to choose from. If in November, they’re getting to choose between two Republicans or two Democrats, if those are the best two candidates to represent the district. We’ll also know voters are enjoying the system if we asked them after the election, “did you enjoy that system compared to the status quo?” What are the aspirations on how these systems impact governing? What we’ll see is we’ll see policy getting made. We’ll see Democrats, Republicans, and perhaps independents and third party candidates coming together in coalitions to pass policies that Americans care about. Because the reality is that if you ask Americans, on the issues they tend to agree, but they send individuals to Congress with different electoral incentives, and that’s what’s prevented good governance from getting done.
Jim Vokal: Tyler, thanks for joining us today on Nebraskanomics.
Tyler Fisher: Thanks so much, great to be here.