Argument: Open primaries push third parties out of general elections

Issue Report: Open primaries


George Will. “Proposition California ensures electoral blandness.” Washington Post. June 13th, 2010: “Voters who prefer their political menu seasoned with the spices provided by minor parties are pretty much out of luck. Under Proposition 14, such parties — Green, Libertarian, etc. — which previously could place candidates on November ballots, will almost always be excluded from those by failing to run first or second in primaries.”

“Proposition 14, the “top-two open primary”, has already been tried in two states, Washington (in 2008) and Louisiana (used for Congress 1978-2006, and state office ever since 1975). We know what happens in that system. In Washington, in 2008, for the first time since Washington became a state, there were no independent or minor party candidates on the November ballot for Congress and statewide state office. In Louisiana, no minor party member has ever qualified for the second round. That is why independents, or independent-minded people, who have been elected to important office, such as Ron Paul, Lowell Weicker, Jesse Ventura, and John Anderson, are opposed to a system that leaves just two candidates on the November ballot. New parties, representing movements, can’t get a foothold in a system that allows only two candidates on the November ballot.”

Susan McWilliams. “‘Open’ primaries and the illusion of choice.” Front Porch Republic. June 9th, 2010: “On Tuesday, the residents of this fair state voted to “open” the California primaries. From now on, every voter in the state will receive the same ballot in a primary election. In each race, voters can choose among all candidates, and the two candidates who garner the most votes – regardless of party affiliation – will appear on the general ballot.

As my calculated use of quotation marks suggests, I’m not sure “open” is the best way to describe this or similar electoral systems. Open to whom, and on what terms?

This is a system which is effectively going to bar third-party candidates from appearing on the general ballot, which often will force Republicans to choose between two Democrats in a general election (and sometimes vice versa), and which prohibits voters from writing in candidates on the general ballot.

And, as a report from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies predicts, it is going to “significantly” increase the cost of running for office in California, since candidates will have to make appeals to a wider swath of voters. That means, of course, that it will be that much more difficult for non-moneyed candidates to have a shot at elected office.

To add to the fun, no candidate will be required to list a party affiliation on the ballot – thereby taking away one important piece of information from voters who make it to the polls.

I’m sure the citizens whose votes passed this measure, Proposition 14, were attracted to the language of “openness” and “choice” that proponents used to sell it. (Major proponents, for the record, included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of California’s biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, who outspent the opposition by a 20-to-1 margin.)

But this strikes me as further evidence that the language of choice is the hypno-narcotic of contemporary American rhetoric: the disorienting drug that we cannot resist, that lures us in with the promise of a momentary high, that conceals its true nature until too late, that fries our brains.

It’s not news that Americans tend to think of having more choices as having a more fulfilling life, despite the great evidence to the contrary amassed by people like the psychologist Barry Schwartz (whose book The Paradox of Choice is one of the great reads of the last decade).

But more and more, it seems that in this country, where “choice” is a pseudo-sacred concept, Americans do not really see where our choices actually begin and end. Despite all our sanctification of the idea of choosing in the abstract, we don’t understand choices all that well.

Often, as in the case of Proposition 14, we latch ourselves to things because they claim to give us more choices – even when a moment’s reflection would suggest that they might do the opposite. In the case of this law, the vaunted “openness” it promises at the primary level is more than counterbalanced by great restrictions on choosing in the general election.”