How are party primaries a form of gerrymandering?

Consider these 34 Questions and Answers

Q: What are primaries?
A: Primaries are publicly funded elections where the number of people running for office is reduced. They typically occur some months before the general election.

Q: What is a party primary?
A: Party primaries - paid for by all taxpayers - are held by the two major parties. Usually a party primary is only for members of that party. Members of each party vote to see who will advance to the general election. 'Minor' parties (like the Green or Libertarian parties) may have primaries of their own - that they pay for - though often they narrow the field through consensus or by other means.

Q: What is the general election?
A: Those who win in the party primaries (or are otherwise chosen by minor parties) compete for office in the general election. In Maryland, minor parties must typically collect 10,000 signatures every two years to put a candidate on the general election ballot. The general election is held in the beginning of November.

Q: Are there always primaries?
A: No, in many cities people simply meet together to nominate candidates without party involvement. Elections where there are no parties are known as 'non-partisan' races. In some places there are 'open primaries' where everyone gets to vote - for anyone.

Q: How is it that closed primaries are a form of gerrymandering?
A: Gerrymandering occurs when one group keeps out other groups in elections. This can be intentional and obvious, like re-drawing district lines to game who wins. Or, gerrymandering can be hidden in the mechanics of elections, as is the case in partisan primaries. When one political party's primary winners always win in the general election, then everyone else is kept out. That's gerrymandering. In Montgomery County, for example, about 40% of voters are kept out, because the votes of the 22% who are independents and 18% who are Republicans or members of minor parties have no effect.

Q: Do counties have to have party affiliation?
A: No, parties do not need to control county politics. Counties have little or nothing to do with national party politics.

Q: How many people are in the primaries?
A: Ideally, whoever wants to run for office can run in the primary.

Q: How many people get to run for a position in the general election?
A: With closed primaries, one person from each party can run for each position. With open primaries, the top vote-getters in the open primary advance to the general elections. Allowing five is said to promote a good conversation and diversity of opinion during debates. Smaller numbers have been tried. Regardless, the top vote-getters in the primary move to the general election. Ranked-choice-voting (RCV) can be used to find the winner in the primaries and in the general election. See below for an explanation of RCV.

Q: Do only Democrats and Republicans get to run in open primaries?
A: No. Though Democrats and Republicans are the two 'major' parties in the United States, anyone can run - and everyone can vote - in open primaries. But the two major parties have a lot of members, and they often control elections.

Q: Does everyone have to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican?
A: No, people can register to vote as they choose, and the number of people who don't register in any party - known as 'independents' - is growing in many places.

Q: What are the Green, Libertarian or other parties?
A: These are 'minor' parties, with far fewer members than the Republicans or Democrats. In the United States it is nearly impossible to win an election if a candidate is a member of a minor party because of the power of the major parties, and because of the many election rules that have become embedded in election laws, codes and rules.

Q: How can minor parties run in elections?
A: Getting the right to be on a ballot differs from place to place. Usually, someone from a minor party can be on the ballot if they meet certain requirements set by a state or local board of elections, and this often includes gathering signatures by hand, which then get tallied by boards of election. Electronic methods were allowed in the years of the pandemic in Maryland, but those methods - which made signature gathering more efficient - were pulled back when the pandemic eased.

Q: Are all minor parties on the ballot?
A: Only people or parties who follow the rules in the various states can be on the ballots. These rules sometimes make it very hard for someone who is registered in a minor party to either get in the primary, or to be in the general election. These rules are part of the problem to be solved with open primaries.

Q: Who pays for the primaries?
A: The major parties get their expenses paid by state taxpayers, even if a taxpayer isn't registered with a major party, and is thus is kept from voting. This is doubly unfair - you can't vote, and you must pay for those who can.

Q: How about people who aren't in any party?
A: Being independent of party politics can be refreshing and liberating, but also has costs. In Maryland independent voters can't vote in primaries for county, state or federal elections. In some cases they can't even vote for non-partisan races, according to a 2004 court decision.

Q: How can the election be decided in the primary if there is a general election?
A: If one major party is so strong in a particular place that the other major party never wins, then whoever wins in the primaries - in the dominant major party - will win in the general election. This is a type of 'gerrymandering', even though all rules are followed.

Q: How can we get rid of this unfair 'primary gerrymandering?'
A: Giving every registered voter a vote in the primaries is the way to eliminate this unfair gerrymandering.

Q: How is this accomplished?
A: Open primaries, where everyone gets to vote eliminates the problem of party primary gerrymandering.

Q: What is ranked-choice-voting?
A: Ranked-choice-voting (RCV) tallies people's second or third (etc) choices when they vote. Then, candidates with the least number of votes are dropped off in waves and their second/third (etc) choice votes are allocated to the remaining candidates. This gets the winner over 50%, which is fair, and eliminates the need for a runoff election.

Q: Do we need ranked-choice-voting (RCV)?
A: Yes, RCV in both open primaries and the general election works to eliminate primary gerrymandering.

Q: I'm a Republican. Would I still get to vote in an open primary?
A: Yes, everyone gets to vote.

Q: I'm a Democrat. Would I still get to vote in an open primary?
A: Yes, everyone - Democrats, Republicans, independent voters, and voters registered in minor parties get to vote.

Q: What do I lose as a member of a major party?
A: If your party is the one that always wins elections in a certain place, then you would lose that guarantee. But, you would get better exposure to honest ideas from all parts of the political spectrum.

Q: I'm a Democrat in Montgomery County. I like knowing that I have the power to elect who I want. Why would I give that up?
A: I (Dan Robinson) talked to a friend who is registered as a Democrat because he wants to have a say in the election, but he knows it's wrong to keep 40% of the voters in Montgomery County out. As we talked about all of this, he said "I believe everything you're saying." If open primaries and final five general elections with RCV were in place he would be happier, and he knows it. He might even drop his registration as a Democrat. Though this is a threat to the Democrats and to the Republicans too, this issue of exclusion is more important than party politics.

Q: What do I lose if I'm an independent voter, or member of a minor party?
A: Independent voters lose that feeling - which is real - of not having any power. Minor party voters would not automatically see a candidate from their minor pary on the ballot - but candidates from minor parties would get to run in the primary, something new for them.

Q: Would major party candidates act differently?
A: When party primaries are eliminated all candidates, regardless of party, run against each other from the get-go. This means that one candidate is less likely to trash-talk others so that his or her agenda appeals to the party's radical fringe. The final decision is made in the general election, but an open primary encourages everyone to discuss issues, problems and solutions as opposed to demonizing the opposition. These kinds of changes have occurred in places with open primaries. It works!

Q: What about candidates from the minor parties?
A: Minor party candidates have a chance in the primary and in the general election. Their task is to appeal to a majority of voters, just like candidates in the major parties.

Q: Does this make parties obsolete?
A: No. Parties - major or minor - still perform their function of pulling appealing ideas, platforms, policies and promises together for their candidates and voters.

Q: Are parties listed on the ballot?
A: This depends on the way the election laws are written. Some places that have open primaries list party affiliation. Some say that a candidate 'leans Republican (or Democrat).' Some don't list party affiliation.

Q: Are there still debates?
A: Yes. In fact, debates become real. They are more frequent, important, and inclusive, with more room for good political conversations. In Montgomery County now, after the party primaries no debates are scheduled. I (Dan) joke with friends that for me, running as a Green Party candidate, it felt like I was at the train station watching the train leave. Republicans and I looked in the windows, but the conductor wouldn't let us get on board.

Q: What are the real downsides?
A: The losers, when open primaries occur, include consultants who make their living keeping up the battle between the two major parties, and rich and powerful people who keep politicians in their pockets with campaign contributions.

Q: How can elections be changed to use open primaries?
A: In Maryland counties have little leeway so the state has to be part of the solution. Our intent is to make a study of the election law in Maryland and join forces with others who want to reform our elections. This can be done with lobbying, ballot initiatives, lawsuits, and grassroots organizing. Welcome to the fray!

Q: Who would pay for open primaries?
A: Taxpayers would pay for open primaries, just as they now pay for major party primaries. Minor party members and independent voters would no longer pay for election primaries that they can't vote in.

Q: Are there other places with open primaries?
A: Yes, the state of Alaska has open primaries (with four candidates going to the general) and RCV. They have more independent voters that both major parties combined. Nevada instituted open primaries in the 2022 elections with five going to the general election. Other state have variants of open primaries. These are not new ideas, but making the transition to open primaries is always difficult because of entrenched interests and ideas. In both Alaska and Nevada the change to open primaries occurred through ballot initiatives.

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Things to think about:

- Party primaries are a form of gerrymandering
- Cities, Alaska and Nevada have models to follow
- independents pay for party primaries
- Open primaries are inclusive
- Everyone votes in open primaries


There are strategies that will help independents regain their voting power - and empower minor parties - ranging from strategic registration switching to make your preferences meaningful, to registering at certain times in minor parties, to (of course) changing our state electoral structure. All paths include open primaries and ranked-choice voting - an inclusive path that fosters political dialogue.

Although Maryland counties can't reform their own elections, the state does have the capacity to change, and we can help drive that change. One of the goals of this site is to engage you in strategies to get there. Most municipalities avoid the party primary trap, and that's another place to look for answers.