Issue Report: Open primaries

Are open primaries a good idea?

An open primary is a primary election that does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for partisan candidates. In a traditional open primary, voters may select one party’s ballot and vote for that party’s nomination. As in a closed primary, the highest voted candidate in each party then proceeds to the runoff election. In a nonpartisan blanket primary, all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest voted candidates proceed to the runoff, regardless of party affiliation. The constitutionality of this system was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2008, whereas a partisan blanket primary was previously ruled to be unconstitutional in 2000. In the United States, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin. California’s decision to adopt an open primary system was particularly controversial in June of 2010 through proposition 14th. As the country’s most populous state, its overwhelming voter approval of the proposition widened many eyes about the potential of open primaries across the country and around the world, enlivening the debate on the topic to a new level. The pros and cons surround Proposition 14 and the general open primary debate are presented below.
See Wikipedia’s article on open primaries for more background.

Voter choice: Do open primaries improve voter choice?

Open primaries favor voter wishes over party establishment's

Daniel Hannan. "Conservative Democrats prove the case for open primaries." July 18th, 2009

“Of all the political changes I’d like us to adopt – citizens’ initiatives and referendums, recall votes, a separation of powers, the end of Crown Prerogative, Lords reform, localism – open primaries are the most important. They force politicians to answer downwards to their constituents, not upwards to their Whips. They encourage the parties to reflect local opinion.”

Open primaries advance two most-favored candidates to general

"California should switch to open primary elections." Stanford Daily Editorial. May 12th, 2010

“it would actually strengthen the democratic process by allowing the two most supported candidates to face one another, rather than just the top candidates from each party.” These two candidates reflect the greatest will of the people, and the winner would, subsequently, be the strongest possible candidate.

Open primaries produce competitive, substantive general elections

Edward Headington. "Why Open Primaries Is A Vote for the People." Fox and Hounds. June 4th, 2010

“by allowing the top two vote-getters to move forward, we would at least get a real debate in many districts and the chance that our governing bodies would be more open to bipartisan solutions.”

Open primaries are similar to how local leaders are elected

Californians for an Open Primary

“It’s similar to the way we elect school boards, city councils and county boards of supervisors.” All of these positions generally exist outside of party affiliation, with the result that voters more frequently elect individuals on the basis of their ability to get results and move things forward rather than on their party and ideological affiliations.

Open primaries foster nuance and choice within a party

Political parties are not monoliths of political beliefs. Open primaries make it clear, when two candidates of the same party advance through to the general, that those differences can be manifested and hashed out on the larger general-election stage. This is healthy in producing more nuanced, vibrant, and competitive political parties.

Open primaries allow nominations inconsistent with party member views

"Why open primaries are a really bad idea." Next Left. May 26th, 2009

“Political parties are also communities of shared belief. I am not a member of the Labour party because I prefer the colour red to the colours yellow, blue or green, but because I have certain values and I judge the Labour party to be the best (if highly imperfect) vehicle for bringing these values to bear on the political system. In choosing candidates for an election, party members choose someone to stand up for these values, make the case for policies that reflect these values to the wider public, and act on them if elected. […] Under an open primary system, however, party members would lose the ability to choose candidates who reflect the distinctive values of the party to which they belong. If an open primary system works, it means that candidates are chosen who reflect the values of the public at large. The political party thus loses the ability to stand candidates who offer ideas to the public who express its distinctive values and beliefs.”

Open primaries reduce distinctive ideological choices

"Why open primaries are a really bad idea." Next Left. May 26th, 2009

“A healthy democracy is one that presents voters at elections with real choices. Political parties, as communities of distinctive shared belief, are the main institution we use to frame choice. Under an open primary system, however, meaningful choice would be under threat. If the open primary system works, then all party candidates will end up looking pretty much like the median voter. Elections will become contests between centrists, and, given the absence of real policy or philosophical difference, will be determined more by issues of personality. That is bad for democracy.”

Open primaries push third parties out of general (reduce choice)

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.”

Voter participation: Do open primaries improve voter participation?

Primaries can decide elections; they need to be inclusive/open

Primaries are critically important in elections, often determining the winner, particularly in areas that are dominated by one party or another. It is, therefore, very important that they be inclusive and representative of the broader wishes of the electorate. Open primaries help accomplish this by allowing all voters to participate.

Open primaries let independents/third-party-voters participate

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies: “I want every vote to count, and right now there is very little incentive for registered independents to vote in primaries because they have to request a Democratic or Republican ballot.”

Open primaries increase Independents' participation in general election.

The open primary could be seen as good for voter participation. First, the open primary allows nonpartisan or independent voters to participate in the nominating process. If these voters are allowed to help select the nominees then they may be more likely to vote in the general election, since one of the candidates could be someone the non-partisan voter voted for. Also, a moderate member of one party may agree more with a candidate for the nomination of another party. This voter will have more of an incentive to participate in the general election if there is a nominee whom he or she agrees with.

Independent voter base is growing, favoring open primaries

"Why Open Primaries?"

“40% of the American electorate now identify as independents. While increasing numbers of Americans reject party politics, our electoral process is still regulated by the two parties. The electorate is changing, and our process must change to reflect the make up and preferences of American voters.”

Open primaries demand more from voters in assessing candidates

"Editorial: California should switch to open primary elections." Stanford Daily Editorial. May 12th, 2010

“Candidates must be evaluated on more than just their party identification in an open system, promoting greater voter involvement.”

"Candidates must be evaluated on more than just their party identification in an open system, promoting greater voter involvement."

The open primary could also be viewed as bad for voter participation. Statistics show that voter participation in the United States was higher when people could only vote in the primary for their own party. In Hawaii, primary voter turnout fell from 74.6% in 1978 to 42.2% in 2006 after changing to open primaries. The closed primary system had more of an incentive for people to join one of the major parties. This led to people being more involved in the voting process. With the open primary, some argue, more voters become independent and are less likely to participate in the nominating or election processes.

Open primaries disincentivize engagement by core party activists

"Why open primaries are a really bad idea." Next Left. May 26th, 2009

“granting Liberal voters who have no record of activism on behalf of the Liberal Party preselection rights will discourage the loyal, hardworking members of the Liberal Party who keep it running between elections. Preselection rights in the Liberal Party are often hard-won and the result of years of work on behalf of the Party. This is an appropriate reward for long serving and dedicated work on behalf of the Party. Liberal Party members who attend State Councils, participate in policy forums and hold fundraisers throughout the electoral cycle deserve recognition for the work that they do. Granting preselection rights to anyone who is willing to fill in a form devalues the contribution of Party members and removes much of the incentive for their work.”

Open primaries lower turnout by eliminating clear choices

"Why open primaries are a really bad idea." Next Left. May 26th, 2009

“here is good evidence that one of the reasons for things like falling electoral turnout in contemporary democracies is precisely that parties do not offer voters sufficient choice. The open primary, ostensibly a way of putting the political system more in touch with the voter, would be likely to accentuate this in the long-term and so actually risks worsening lack of interest and engagement in the political system.”

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