Citizens' Voice is a platform for people-driven news and opinion. Be the opinion leader. Write and submit an 800-word op-ed with a one sentence bio and head shot.
Journalist Naomi Wolf offers some useful guidelines for writing an op-ed - Read More
by Eric O'Keefe & Mark Meckler
As voters go to the polls for state legislative primaries, new research shows this election year might not be the cakewalk for incumbents as it has been in years past. Primary voters across the country are rejecting incumbent members of state legislatures in higher numbers this year than in previous cycles.
A new report by the nonpartisan Ballotpedia, Primary Challenge: Anti-Incumbency Voting Patterns in State Legislative Primaries, finds 76 incumbent state legislators have been defeated in primaries so far this year. That’s a 74 percent increase from the 2010 cycle. If this pattern holds up, about 150 incumbents will lose primaries this cycle.
This has been a year of newsworthy upsets in primaries at the federal level as well. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, first elected in 1976, was defeated in his primary this spring, and several longtime members of the House of Representatives also lost their seats to challengers.
The American people are discovering something the professionals of the political establishment wish they didn’t know: Most representatives are really chosen in the primary, not the general election. That’s because most districts naturally vote strongly Democratic or strongly Republican, so if the favored party’s candidate prevails in the primary, victory in the general is virtually assured.
The Ballotpedia study provides evidence that voters understand they have a far better chance of defeating incumbents by voting in the primary - and are beginning to take advantage of the opportunity.
Defeating incumbents has never been easy. They enjoy formidable advantages in name recognition, fundraising and support from their party organizations. Challenging an incumbent usually means taking on the party. That’s why the vast majority of incumbents are unopposed in their primaries. Ballotpedia reports 77.3 percent of incumbents ran unopposed in their 2010 primaries, and only 1.9 percent lost their primary.
But when they do face a primary challenge, the incumbent’s odds don’t look so good. With nearly half of this year’s state legislative primaries complete, nearly 15% of those challenging incumbents have won their primary.
More and more voters are seeing it is the primary where they have real leverage and where their votes really count. Not only are most districts one-party districts, but far fewer citizens vote in primaries. So each voter has much more clout in the election that actually decides the winner. And just as significantly, a small increase in voter turnout in the primary could provide the challenger’s margin of victory.
That’s what happened in El Paso’s congressional primary. Eleven thousand more ballots were cast this year than in 2010, giving insurgent challenger Beto O’Rourke the few hundred votes he needed to avoid a runoff and beat entrenched incumbent Rep. Silvestre Reyes.
The number of incumbents defeated in primaries is still small, but the trend is going in the right direction - and it could snowball. As more voters who want new ideas and new leaders use primaries to defeat unpopular incumbents, more substantial challengers will step forward, with better funded campaigns and more attention from the media.
For years, citizens have expressed their desire for change, but have repeatedly been disappointed by the electoral system. Activists have proposed various reforms to prevent political insiders from manipulating elections to their advantage. But voters have the power to hold politicians accountable with today’s election rules. The most powerful way to fight back is through primaries. We are seeing the first stirrings of what could be a significant shift toward more competitive elections and citizen engagement to revive representative government.
:: photo courtesy of League of Women Voters of California, via Creative Commons license ::
Eric O’Keefe is co-chairman and co-founder of the Campaign for Primary Accountability and the Alliance for Self-Governance. Mark Meckler is president of Citizens for Self Governance.