An op-ed by Sarah Brannon
On May 17th, voters turned out for the 2022 midterm primary elections throughout Kentucky. Though midterm primary elections often have low awareness among the public, they have a huge impact on who will represent Kentuckians at the local, state, and federal levels.
However, throughout the state, several troubling trends suggest our primaries are not leading to enough voter participation, competition, or outcomes that represent most Kentucky voters.
Participation in party primaries for the U.S. Senate seat reached 19.5%: this is below average for Kentucky, and it builds on a trend of a decline in midterm turnout from 30.0% in 2010, 26.8% in 2014, and 25.7% in 2018. Just 14% of voters participated in congressional primaries.
Low turnout in party primaries is partially due to the “safe” nature of Kentucky’s districts — five districts lean solidly Republican, and one district leans solidly Democratic.
Safe districts are a function of two trends: our growing urban/rural divide means that Republicans tend to live in rural areas, and Democrats tend to live in urban areas. Additionally, redistricting has left many voters with just one viable choice in the general election. This especially affects Democrats—1.6 million Kentucky voters, or 45.5% of the total number registered, are Democrats, yet just one congressional district in the commonwealth favors Democrats.
Safe districts are also not unique to Kentucky: in uncompetitive red and blue seats across the nation in 2020, just 10% of voters elected 83% of the U.S. House. The implication of this is that leaders need to campaign only for the votes of the select few, partisan faithfuls in their district.
Competition in U.S. House and State Legislative Races
Republican party primaries for U.S. House all featured multiple candidates, with the exception of District 1, where incumbent Rep. Comer ran unopposed.
However, the Democratic Party seemed to suffer from a lack of candidates in the running entirely. Though there were two candidates in the reliably Democratic 3rd district, in half of the U.S. House districts — districts one, four, and five — the Democrats ran unopposed.
Down ballot in the state legislature, Republican incumbents faced an unusually large number of challenges this year. Some challengers felt that the incumbent was not conservative enough — others faced challengers from party chairs themselves, sparking an ethics debate.
A few State House incumbents, including Rep. Ed Massey, Rep. Sal Santoro, and Rep. Adam Koenig, lost their seats to small-government, Liberty-Republicans. These candidates may have won by “out-conservating” their incumbent, but other high-profile candidates who challenged Gov. Beshear with impeachment lost their bids for election.
Such was the case with the State Senate’s 22nd District. Mainstream Republican, Andrew Cooperrider, lost his expensive primary challenge to the incumbent, Dr. Donald Douglas. This may have more to do with Gov. Beshear’s popularity as the highest-ranked Democratic Governor in the country, according to a poll ran by Morning Consult, more so than the actual politics of Republican voters.
Most Democratic incumbents were able to hold on to their seats, with a notable exception of Tom Burch, the longest-serving member of the State House, who served 24 terms in House District 30.
Critically, many voters were left with no choice at all: 8 out of 19 State Senate incumbents and 59 out of 100 State House incumbents ran unopposed in state legislative primaries. Due to the incumbency advantage, this likely means that 56.3% of Kentucky legislative candidates won their elections simply by filing paperwork.
Lack of Representation: Closed Primaries
Besides low participation, Kentucky is one of the nine states with closed primaries that prevent independents and voters not registered with either major party — nearly 10% of Kentuckians — from participating in consequential elections. That leaves nearly 343,000 voters in our state with no voice in taxpayer-funded primaries.
In practice, this means many voters don’t have a say in the nominee that advances out of primaries, and by the time the general election rolls around in November, the election is already decided.
These problems are not unique to Kentucky, or red states in particular. Similarly, uncompetitive elections took place in Oregon, North Carolina, Idaho, and Pennsylvania on Tuesday, and Oregon and Pennsylvania also prevented independents from participating in primaries.
The Solution: Open & Nonpartisan Primaries
Voters in Kentucky need not settle for the status quo of little choice or voice in the outcomes of their elections. Opening primaries is an incremental step that would invite greater participation in important elections.
Further, Kentucky could consider nonpartisan primaries. Alaska recently adopted a system that will allow all candidates to appear on the same primary ballot, and all voters — regardless of party affiliation — can participate. The top four candidates will advance to the general election, where ranked choice voting will help determine the consensus winner.
It’s clear Kentucky has a primary problem. Reforming the system would incentivize our leaders to represent their entire district (not just the sliver of the electorate that votes in primaries), and make all voices heard.
Sarah Brannon is a Master’s Student at Georgetown University and is conducting a research practicum at Unite America, a nonpartisan election reform organization