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League of Women Voters of Boulder County
Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy
Serving the People of Boulder County, Colorado

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The Voting Methods Team proposes a Primary Election Reform Study

Jeanne Clelland, Marcus Ogren and Celeste Landry | Published on 3/5/2023
In recent years, more and more jurisdictions have been changing their primary election procedures, and there is a dizzying variety of new possibilities being rolled out.  Just a few examples:

Top-Two blanket primary – candidates from all parties run against each other

California since 2011 except for U.S. President and county/local offices)
use Plurality (i.e., “choose one”) voting
two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election

Top-Four blanket primary – candidates from all parties run against each other

Alaska since 2022 for all state executive, state legislative, and congressional elections
use Plurality voting in the primary and Instant Runoff Voting – the most common form of single-winner Ranked Choice Voting – for the general election
four candidates with the most votes advance to the general election

Top-Two nonpartisan primary – no party labels and all candidates run against each other

St Louis, MO since 2021 for municipal offices 

use Approval Voting (vote for all the candidates you support)

Seattle, WA beginning in 2027 for municipal offices

Use Bottoms-Up RCV, a multi-winner form of Ranked Choice Voting

two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election


Other jurisdictions want to do away with primary elections altogether, some in conjunction with adopting a more expressive voting method in the general election in order to reduce the perceived need to “winnow the field” prior to the general election.

Since many of these changes transcend party politics and have a major impact on the overall conduct and outcome of elections at all levels, the Voting Methods Team believes that the League should study these issues and formulate a position on how best to conduct our local, state, and federal primary elections.  At the LWVBC Program Planning Meetings in February, we proposed that the LWVBC undertake a Primary Election Reform Study. Team members Marcus Ogren and Jeanne Clelland have volunteered to lead the study, and we hope that LWVBC will approve it at the membership meeting in May.  

Questions that such a study might address include, but are not limited to:
  1. What do we envision as the role of primaries?  What problem(s) do they exist to solve?
  2. Should we have primary elections at all?
  3. Who should be eligible to vote in each primary election? Should primaries be open, semi-open, or closed?
  4. Should partisan primaries be (a) blanket primaries where all the candidates are identified by their party labels and run against each other, or (b) party primaries where candidates only run against other candidates from the same party for a spot on the general election ballot?
  5. What role should political parties play? Should they be able to nominate candidates? Should they be able to endorse candidates on the ballot?
  6. How many candidates should advance to the general election? Should this depend on the office in question and/or the voting method being used in the general election?
  7. What voting method(s) should be used in primary elections? What voting method(s) for general elections would best complement primary reform?
  8. U.S. Presidential primary elections are unique because they involve national candidates, but different states hold presidential primaries on different days. What are the pros and cons of the current presidential primary system? Are there ways to improve the presidential primary process?
  9. How should primaries work in multi-winner elections? For example, the U.S. Representative for Boulder County is a co-sponsor of the U.S. Fair Representation Act (FRA), which would create multi-winner congressional districts. What are good structures for multi-winner congressional primary elections? Or alternatively, should there be no congressional primary elections?
  10. What kind of ballot access should be available for primary elections? Some electoral reformers want to get rid of the assembly process in Colorado, which is currently the main way that major parties get candidates onto the primary ballot and minor parties get candidates onto the general election ballot. 
Do any of these questions sound interesting to you? Are there any questions that you think we need to consider but that aren't on the list? If so, we'd be happy to have you work with us on the study. Let as know at Primaries are a complicated topic that touch on everything from partisan politics to money in politics, and we could benefit from perspectives and expertise that lie outside the Voting Methods Team.