Primaries have taken on great importance in American elections and hold significant implications for governing and bipartisanship. In the electoral context, primaries have in many cases superseded general elections as the consequential contest for determining the ultimate winner, especially in congressional and state legislative elections where one party typically dominates.1 Due to a combination of natural geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, the number of competitive seats for Congress and state legislatures has declined since the 1970s.2,3 Most are “safe” seats— reliably Republican or Democratic. As a result, primaries—when voter participation is typically lowest—are increasingly determinative of the general election outcome.
Summary of Findings
• Turnout of all eligible voters in 2022 primaries was 21.3%. That compares with 19.9% in 2018, 14.3% in 2014, and 18.3% in 2010.
• In the 2022 primaries, 24.4 million voters cast ballots for Republican candidates, exceeding the 21.3 million votes that were cast for Democrats.
• Kansas led the nation in 2022 with a primary turnout rate of 48%. The ballot included a hotly contested referendum on abortion rights. Wyoming was second with 42% turnout and Alaska third with 37% turnout. Wyoming featured a high-profile House Republican primary, whereas Alaska featured multiple closely contested races, a special election to fill a U.S. House vacancy, and a new top-four voting system. Washington and Oregon rounded out the top five.
• The bottom five states for turnout in 2022 were Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Mississippi. Each had 12% participation or less.
• Seven states met BPC’s target of 30% primary turnout by 2020: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. Two states, Missouri and Oklahoma, met this target in 2018 but fell short in 2022.
• States with more open-primary formats, recommended by BPC in 2014, continue to have higher turnout than other states. This includes top-two and top-four primaries. Our analysis shows that states that switch to top four and top-two primary systems, such as Alaska and California, enjoy an
average boost to turnout of more than 3 percentage points.
• Consolidating primary dates, recommended by BPC in 2014, also leads to higher primary voter participation. Our analysis concludes that states that hold their primaries at the same time as neighboring states increase turnout by about 1.4 percentage points.
• Other policy reforms that might increase primary participation include
1) holding primaries for state offices at the same time as federal offices
2) allowing voters to cast ballots in uncontested races, and
3) eliminating nominating conventions.
Factors that might affect turnout but remain at least partially outside the direct control of policymakers include
1) the presence of high-interest statewide contests or referenda on the ballot in a given year, and
2) the opportunity for every eligible voter in each state to participate in a primary.