Primary elections in the USA and Australia

Electoral Regulation Research Network seminar

Thursday, 20th May 2021


  • John Hart, Emeritus Faculty, Australian National University
  • Anika Gauja, Professor of Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.


  • Jill Sheppard, Senior Lecturer, School of Politics and International Relations, ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

About the Talk:

Primary elections, in which voters are given the opportunity to determine who will be a party’s candidate at a general election, are a long-standing feature of the electoral process in the USA. The opportunity they provide to involve party supporters more deeply in shaping election outcomes has sometimes been viewed favourably in countries where public disengagement from politics has been seen as a problem.

And yet, in the USA, primary elections are increasingly being identified as a major factor underpinning a dysfunctional polarisation of, or even “sectarianism” in, political discourse. This is reflected in the invention of a new verb - “to be primaried” - which describes the potential fate of incumbent representatives who face challenges from activists if their political stances have not adhered sufficiently to a typically more extreme (left or right) world view.

What then, can be learned from recent US experience? Would primary elections, if adopted elsewhere, eventually lead to similar consequences? Or are the pathologies seen in the US unique to that country, such that primary elections held elsewhere could be expected to be beneficial to democratic participation?

This webinar is a joint initiative of the Electoral Regulation Research Network (ERRN), Melbourne School of Government and the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.