Questions? +1 (202) 335-3939 Login
Trusted News Since 1995
A service for political professionals · Wednesday, April 24, 2024 · 706,269,634 Articles · 3+ Million Readers

Here’s What’s Really Crazy About Congress: It Takes So Few Votes to Get There

October 12, 2023
Arizona congressman Eli Crane is one of the eight Republican House members who voted to oust Kevin McCarthy as Speaker. An estimated 520,000 eligible voters live in Crane’s district. He’s in Congress because he won just 7.7% of their votes.

Tennessee congressman Tim Burchett also voted against McCarthy. He won the Republican primary that elevated him to the House with 7.6% his district’s vote.

How is this possible, that people can win congressional seats with so few votes? Well, Crane and Burchett are not outliers. In Congress, minority rule is the rule. It happens because so few eligible voters cast ballots in primary elections. Gerrymandering and other factors have created hundreds of congressional districts that are mostly locks for the party that now holds them. That makes the primary election the definitive election and November’s voting just a formality.

The Cook Political Report, a respected barometer of political elections to come, divines that only 24 of the 435 congressional seats will be true tossups in 2024. Cook estimates another 53 could be in play, but are not likely to shift from one party to another.

It gets worse.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, in 2018 primaries nationally, only 9.9 percent of voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates, while 8.8 percent were cast for Republican candidates. In 2014, only 6 percent of the voting-eligible population cast primary votes for Democratic candidates, and fewer than 8 percent voted for Republican candidates.

Worse yet.

Those are total turnout percentages. Divide them even further to get winning percentages for candidates who won those primaries in contested multi-candidate elections.

Bottom line: over the past decade 80 to 85% of eligible voters have not participated in the elections that are key to who serves in Congress. Members are winning tickets to national power with fly spec percentages of constituent support.

As a result, determined small pockets of single-issue voters are dictating national policy. The rest of us have become the frustrated majority.

That well-known line from the old Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and it is us,” goes a long way toward explaining why Congress seems so unrepresentative. Collectively, we have drained the voting pool. We have let it become far too shallow.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that fixes are doable without a constitutional amendment, or judicial decisions, or mostly without even legislative action.

Since so few voters bother to turn out in the primaries, it would not take many more to defeat the shrill and incompetent in their own parties. We often hear that Republican incumbents don’t vote the way they really want because they are afraid of losing the “base” and being “primaried.” If those primaries drew another 10% to 20% more voters, and the “base” was diluted, that might no longer be a concern.

Here’s another fix: No Labels and other groups raising money and organizational support to place third party candidates on the 2024 presidential ballot could shift focus to Congress and use their resources to recruit strong, qualified candidates to run in either the Republican or Democratic party primaries where the incumbent is half nuts and the primary is the only election that matters. Treat it as the general election. Because it is.

One more: Get an initiative on the ballot to open up the election process. That’s what they did in Alaska. A rank-order voting initiative was placed on the 2020 statewide ballot and voters approved it convincingly. Without that change it’s likely that Lisa Murkowski would have lost her Senate seat to a Trump-supported election denier and Sarah Palin would now be Alaska’s lone member of the House.

Getting a high tension on the primary ballot is another sure-fire way to raise turnout. Think Kansas and its abortion referendum vote.

It’s no coincidence that the highest 2022 primary election voting percentages were Kansas, 48%; Wyoming, 42%; Alaska, 37%. Wyoming’s vote, of course, was fueled by the campaign to defeat Liz Cheney.

A Commission on Political Reform sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center has a number of other recommendations for increasing turnout. One of them is a national primary day. A commission analysis found that states that held their primary on the same day as a neighboring state saw a 14% increase in participation. It’s like a mini-general election. More media, more attention. More resources aimed at getting out the vote. If not a national primary voting day, how about regions coordinating for efficiency?

The disfunction we are seeing in Congress results from electing too many members who shouldn’t be there at all. Small wonder, since 80% or more of us aren’t voting in the elections that really matter.

There’s no reason to throw up our hands over this and say, “We’re doomed.” Get the primary voting percentages up to 30, 35, 40% and we’re likely to see an entirely different and workable Congress. That’s still an embarrassingly low bar in a country that cherishes democracy, but it should be enough to defeat the crazies, and to end the craziness.

Comments? Criticism? Contact Joe Rothstein at jrothstein@rothstein.net or at his web site, www.joerothstein.net.



Joe Rothstein is a political strategist and media producer who worked in more than 200 campaigns for political office and political causes. He also has served as editor of the Anchorage Daily News and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA. Mr. Rothstein is the author of award-winning political thrillers, The Latina President and the Conspiracy to Destroy Her, The Salvation Project, and The Moment of Menace. For more information, please visit his website at https://www.joerothstein.net/.