How the left and right exploit our election system

Lowell Harp

An April 25 NBC News report signifies the kind of choice that we’ll likely face in the 2024 presidential election. It revealed an approval rating of 34 percent for Donald Trump versus a similarly-pitiful 38 percent for Joe Biden. 60 percent didn’t want Mr. Trump to run. 70 percent said the same of President Biden.

Yet both seem certain to be nominated by their respective parties. This forced choice comes to us from an election system that too often fails to represent the people. It’s a problem that we can fix, if we have the will.

The flaws in our system of primary elections for nominating political candidates were open to view in 2020, when the Democratic Party came close to fielding socialist Bernie Sanders for president. It was also apparent in the 2022 House and Senate contests, when the Republican Party nominated extremist candidates, at the cost of its expected landslide victory.

Primary elections normally attract only a small percentage of the voting public. Fewer than eight percent of eligible voters, for example, participated when progressive Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first won in 2018. Fringe candidates can triumph with the support of fewer than half of the voters in these winner-take-all contests, as moderate contenders divide the rest among themselves. That’s how Donald Trump was able to win primaries in state after state in 2016 and go on to dominate the Republican convention.

The success of this divide-and-conquer strategy is rooted in well-intentioned reforms that largely did away with the control that party bosses used to have over the selection of candidates. The unintended consequence was, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain, in their book, “How Democracies Die,” to eliminate the “guardrails” that those leaders had provided against radical candidates.

Gerald Sieb, in the April 22 Wall Street Journal, describes how the following decades further weakened the political parties, with laws limiting their fundraising, court decisions opening the floodgates to election spending by outsiders, and the advent of on-line fundraising by candidates. Mr. Sieb favors laws to reverse those trends and strengthen party organizations.

Other reformers seek to advantage moderate candidates through non-partisan primaries and ranked-choice voting. Alaska introduced a promising version of that approach in time for the 2022 election.

Candidates in Alaska now participate in a single primary election that includes all contestants and voters, regardless of party. The top four winners then move on to the general election, where voters can rank them in the order of their preference. If no candidate wins a majority, the lowest one is eliminated.

His/her supporters’ votes are then distributed among the other contenders, based on who they identified as their second choices. If there’s still no candidate above 50 percent, the next lowest is eliminated in the same way. At this point, one of the two remaining contestants will have a majority and will be declared the winner.

The idea behind this and similar reforms in some other states is, first of all, to ensure that no candidate wins a primary or general election without earning the support of a majority of the voters, as too often happens today. It also discourages extremism and negative campaigning. Candidates need to appeal to a broad range of the public, and avoid offending other contestants’ followers, in order to prevail in the elimination rounds.

Alaska’s system seems to have had the intended effect in 2022, when Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican Senator, was reelected. Under the previous system, she wouldn’t have made it past the hard-liners in the Republican primary.

Reforms like Alaska’s appear to be growing in popularity. They nevertheless won’t by themselves bring about a golden age of harmony to our polarized society. Nor will they address other structural flaws that threaten our democracy, including the Electoral College, the undemocratic Senate, and gerrymandered election districts.

What they can do is impair the ability of the Left and Right to exploit our election system, and help return the advantage to the broad center, the core of the American people, who have for too long been neglected in politics.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs periodically in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at