Why primary elections matter: How to make your voice heard this year

This coming Nov. 6, there will likely be quite a hubbub on campus. In the first nationwide election since Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, members of all parties will be sending in their ballots and looking to send a message to Washington and to their local governments about how they want our country to be run. But long before we get to that point, every state will hold primary elections to determine who exactly will be on that ballot. Over the next few months, the Democratic and Republican (and Libertarian and Green and Working Families and Reform and so on) nominees will be decided by you, the voters of America. But why, you ask, would you bother to do your civic duty and vote in primaries? I’ll explain.

The simple fact of American politics is that, unfortunately, most elections are naturally uncompetitive. The Cook Political Report, a top election prediction newsletter, currently rates 100 U.S. House of Representative seats as competitive for this coming November  – less than one quarter of the 435 seats composing the House. This means that, for around three quarters of Americans, the general election for the House isn’t where the action is – it’s the primary. While there are more competitive Senate and gubernatorial elections than there are in the House, the primary is still the main competition in around half of all states. (There are exceptions to this in California, Washington and Louisiana due to a special top-two primary system. One thing that makes voting so complicated in the U.S. is that every state has a different way of doing it.) Basically, if you want to make your voice truly heard, the primary election is often the best place to do it.

But beyond the simple mechanics of American elections, primaries are an incredibly important tool in deciding how the country is governed. Both mainstream parties face clear divides presently: the Republican Party between Trump-style nationalism and old-school conservatism, and the Democrats between big-tent moderation and unabashed progressivism. I don’t know nearly as much about the Libertarian or Green Parties, but I imagine they are going through existential crises as well, because aren’t we all? Anyway, even if you’ve never voted in your life, I imagine you have some thoughts and opinions on all of these issues, and a primary is the best place to act on them.

I know this is an op-ed and not an admissions brochure, but I’m still going to do an FAQ with things you might be wondering, like:

When and where is my state’s primary? Vote.org, a non-profit founded to achieve 100 percent voter participation in the U.S., has got you covered. If you put in your address, it will tell you exactly where your polling place is. As for the when, The New York Times has a very helpful calendar of elections, or you could just Google it.

How do I register? Once again, Vote.org’s got your back. They’ll help you register and apply for an absentee ballot if you won’t be home on Election Day.

Does my vote really matter? Last year, a race in the Virginia House of Delegates was exactly tied. Had one more person voted in either direction, their preferred candidate would have won. Your vote matters.

The government sucks; why would I want to participate in it? Guess what the best way to make the government not suck is? Voting! If you are eligible to vote but choose not to go to the polls, then you have forfeited your own ability to change things how you see fit. No matter how much you hate the mere idea of the American bureaucracy, the best way to protest is to vote against it, not ignore it completely.

But time is of the essence! I’m sorry, Illinoisans, but your ship has sailed – your primary was over a month ago. And Texans, the first round of your primaries has already passed, but the second round, where the Democratic nominee for governor and loads of House races in both parties will be decided, is still to come. West Virginians, Ohioans, North Carolinians and Indianans, yours is on May 8, so act quickly! As for the rest of us, we have a bit more time, but they’re still coming up fast.

According to an article by The Washington Post published in the middle of the 2014 primary season, only 14.6 percent of eligible voters voted in their states’ primary elections that year (“Voter turnout in primary elections this year has been abysmal,” July 23, 2014). This means that fewer than one-sixth of all voting-eligible Americans decided who got to be on the ballot for everyone else. This year, don’t let yourself become part of the five-sixths that lets other people take the wheel – make your voice heard, and vote in primaries.

Joey Fox ’21 is from New York, N.Y. His major is undecided.

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