Primary elections in the USA and Australia

John Hart, Anika Gauja, Jill Sheppard

Electoral Regulation Research Network seminar

Thursday 20  May 2021

Primary elections in the USA and Australia


Primary elections in the USA and Australia


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.


John Hart is a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the Australian National University, having served in the Department of Political Science there for 34 years, retiring as Reader in 2014. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, a Visiting Professor of Government at Georgetown University, and a Visiting Research Fellow at The American University Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. His research interests are American Government, the American Presidency, and Comparative Executive Government.

Anika Gauja is Professor of Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. Anika’s research interests centre on the comparative analysis of political institutions in modern representative democracies. Her work has looked at the organisation of political parties, assessing their continuing relevance and how they adapt to organisational and social change. Anika also researches in the areas of comparative party law and electoral regulation. She is the author of Party Reform (Oxford University Press), The Politics of Party Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Political Parties and Elections: Legislating for Representative Democracy (Routledge) and co-editor of numerous publications on party members and electoral politics, including Party Members and Activists (Routledge) and Morrison’s Miracle: The 2019 Australian Federal Election (ANU Press).

Jill Sheppard is a senior lecturer in politics at the Australian National University, and an investigator on the Australian Election Study. Her research focuses on why people participate in politics, what opinions they hold and why. Jill is also an investigator on the World Values Survey and Asian Barometer Survey, and a member of the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems planning committee.