Why are states increasingly moving to open primary elections?

March 1, 2023 3:00 am

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Over the last few years, state legislatures have seen a significant increase in proposals to change how states vote. Quite apart from voter eligibility, or the period during which they can vote, these proposals have suggested fundamental changes in how the ballot looks.

Maine and Alaska are using rank-choice voting in their statewide and federal elections. According to a Congressional Research Service study late last year, more than 50 smaller jurisdictions (primarily cities) are authorized by state statutes to use that method and are doing so. With rank-choice voting, every voter sees all candidates and ranks them according to preference.

Rank-choice voting is sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting, as well. As votes are counted, if a candidate receives at least 50% + 1 of the top-ranked votes, they win. If no one receives 50% + 1, the candidate with the lowest number of top-ranked votes is eliminated, and their 2nd-place votes are reallocated to the remaining candidates. This continues until a candidate has received a majority of votes.

Although some local races (including New York City) have been conducted via rank-choice voting, one argument against this method is the potential level of complexity for both voters and those counting the ballots.

States have increasingly moved to some version of open primaries, whereby nonaffiliated voters can participate in primary elections to choose candidates for the general election. Those open primaries can take several forms. In some cases, the primaries are open for nonpartisan or independent registrants who can choose whether to vote in one of the party’s primaries, or in some states, every voter can choose a ballot line to vote in — so a registered Republican might choose to vote in the Republican primary for governor, but in the Democrat primary for U.S. Senate.

Key to any open primaries system is giving voice in the nominating process to nonpartisan voters, who otherwise must wait until the general election and pick among candidates they had no voice in choosing.

Nebraska legislators have introduced several bills over the last few legislative sessions, which would have changed our ballots. In the 107th, Legislative Bill 125 and LB 793 would have provided for rank-choice voting in certain local elections, and LB 111 and LB 139 in the 106th Legislature would have moved to nonpartisan primaries and elections for county officials.

This year, LB 776, introduced by State Sen. Eliot Bostar, would turn Nebraska into a full-fledged open primary state, removing party identification from the ballots and including all candidates for the office on the same primary ballot. In this proposal, Nebraska’s primary would be a “top two open primary,” allowing all voters to choose from the same group of names and the top two vote-getters moving to the general election.

The proposal in LB 776 would effectively universalize the system that Nebraska already uses for its State Legislature.

For those of us who grew up in Nebraska, the story of U.S. Sen. George Norris traversing Nebraska to promote a nonpartisan (and one-house) legislature is legendary. But why does there seem to be something approaching a nationwide search for new ways of electing other officials nationwide today? A couple of hypotheses might come to mind.

First, and perhaps most significantly, we are approaching a quarter of registered voters (in states that register by party, including Nebraska) who choose to register as independent, nonpartisan or unaffiliated rather than with a political party. Many of those voters want a voice in who will ultimately govern them.

Second, the same frustration that has led to states working to change other election laws — such as questions of voter eligibility, voter ID, same-day voting and an extended voting period — may be driving some to work toward greater inclusion in the primary process or, in the case of rank-choice voting, a desire to come up with a winner who is acceptable to the largest number possible.

The Platte Institute takes no position on either the impetus for the proposed changes or the utility of one change over the other. I was tasked late last year with providing an overview of some of these proposals — in the interest of citizen education. That white paper report can be found on the Platte Institute website at

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Laura Ebke
Laura Ebke

Laura Ebke is a lifelong Nebraskan who has lived in Crete for more than 25 years. She has a doctorate in political science from the University of Nebraska, serves as a senior fellow of the Platte Institute and previously served for four years in the Nebraska Legislature and 12 years on the Crete school board. She is a wife, mother of three and grandma of one.