By Jen Johnson
RepresentUs Movement Director

August 16, 2022

When an elected official puts country over party, they should be rewarded for it – both morally and politically. But because of our broken political system, it’s often the opposite. Perhaps the most high-profile example of this is Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney. Despite standing up for the truth and democracy around the events of January 6, polls suggest she’s likely headed for defeat in her August 16 primary.

Wyoming’s broken primary election system is the main reason for this backwards dynamic. But by scrapping closed primaries and implementing Ranked Choice Voting, we can be more confident that elected officials represent the true will of the voters.

Let me explain.

Political parties can essentially rig your primaries

In the last two years, Rep. Cheney has gone against her party in a fundamental way. Recognizing the truth of what happened on January 6, she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump and is currently co-leading the January 6 Committee investigating the capitol attack.

The punishment for her stance was swift. House Republicans voted overwhelmingly to remove her from her leadership position, the Republican National Committee formally censured her, and the Wyoming Republican party disowned her. Unsurprisingly, President Trump has been viciously and consistently attacking her.

With practically her entire party against her, Rep. Cheney is in a perilous political spot. That’s in large part because Wyoming has a closed primary system, where only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. In that situation, if the entire party apparatus supports your opponent, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. Despite winning her 2020 primary with more than 70% of the vote, recent polls have her trailing election denier Harriet Hageman by over 20 points.

Closed primaries are bad for democracy

In a closed primary system, only voters registered with the party can participate. Closed primary elections are inherently undemocratic in nature, restricting choices for American voters and who can vote in the first place.

Closed primaries effectively disenfranchise millions of American voters. As of July 2021, in the 31 states that require voters to register with political parties, independents make up 31.2% of the electorate. This is nearly 39 million Americans. In Wyoming, voters who are not registered with either the Democratic or Republican party make up 14% of the state’s voters. These closed primaries disenfranchise these millions of voters and prevent them from voting in either party’s primary.

This problem is compounded by gerrymandering. The vast majority (80%) of congressional races are uncompetitive in the general election in the U.S. This means that primaries are increasingly the only way for voters to truly choose who represents them in Congress.

As both Democrats and Republicans have escalated their gerrymandering efforts, this leaves independent voters with little to no choice in elections. Closed primaries also prevent registered Democrats and Republicans from crossing party lines during primaries, further restricting voting choices.

Democrats are switching parties to vote for Cheney

In an attempt to avoid defeat, Rep. Cheney has been appealing to Wyoming Democrats to vote for her in the primary. She’s even sent out campaign mailers to Wyoming Democrats encouraging them to change their voter registration so they can vote for her in the Republican primary.

You might be wondering – why would Democrats vote for a Republican? Well, Wyoming is a bright red state. Whoever wins the Republican primary is practically a shoo-in to win in November.

While registered Democrats do have the option of changing their registration to Republican to vote for Rep. Cheney in the primary, it’s an extra hoop that many likely won’t choose. There’s a better way.

We can fix our broken elections

Here at RepresentUs, we’ve long advocated for fairer election systems. One solution here would be to replace Wyoming’s closed primary system with a nonpartisan single-ballot primary. Different from “open primaries”, nonpartisan primaries allow all registered voters into the primary process, can help reduce partisanship, and make elections more efficient. In this particular election, it would eliminate the need for Democrats to change their party registration to vote.

In nonpartisan top-candidate primary, all the candidates appear on the same ballot, and every registered voter can participate. The candidates with the highest number of votes move on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. In a top-two primary, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election. Four candidates advance in top-four primaries.

Nonpartisan primaries are already in use here in the U.S. Alaska is the first state in the country to use this system for all of their statewide races this year. And this November, Nevada voters have the opportunity to vote in favor of a similar system for their state.

Beyond primary elections, we also need to fix general elections. After a nonpartisan top-candidate primary, Ranked Choice Voting should decide the winner of the general election. RCV saves money, empowers voters, and ensures that winning candidates secure majority support.

If Wyoming had a top-candidate primary, perhaps Rep. Cheney would have a better chance. At the very least, we could be confident that the winner reflected the will of all Wyoming voters. We’ll keep working to shine a light on our broken election system, and continue our work to improve elections in cities and states across the country.

Our movement’s 161 victories prove it’s possible. Let’s get to work.

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