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Debate: Open primaries

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Are open primaries a good idea?

Background and context

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.

Contents

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Voter choice: Do open primaries improve voter choice?

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Pro

  • 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.


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Con

  • 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."


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Voter participation: Do open primaries improve voter participation?

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Pro

  • 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."[1]
  • 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.


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Con

  • Open primaries undermine party affiliation and voter participation. 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."
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Third parties: Do open primaries help/hurt third parties?

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Pro

  • 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."[2]


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Con


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Moderation: Do open primaries promote moderates over extremes?

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Pro

  • Open primaries end "us vs them" partisanship voting "California should switch to open primary elections." Stanford Daily Editorial. May 12th, 2010: "The 'opening' of the system by allowing voters to cast their ballot independent of party affiliation is a crucial change. In a political climate that is increasingly polarized by party, opening up the vote would allow voters to see the candidates on a spectrum and break down the “us vs. them” mentality that pervades the current closed system. Candidates must be evaluated on more than just their party identification in an open system, promoting greater voter involvement. The open system also empowers voters to make more of a choice than simply picking their party’s best candidate, allowing for the voter to better evaluate the race overall."
  • Open primaries increase bipartisanship/productivity in govt Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association – one of the few unions to back Prop. 14 in California supporting Open Primaries: "Our primary reason for supporting it is to create a less hostile environment in Sacramento and get some work done."[3]


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Con

  • Open primaries will make politics more bland George Will. "Proposition California ensures electoral blandness." Washington Post. June 13th, 2010: "But, then, blandness is the point of this reform. It seeks to generate a homogenized political class, one not lumpy with liberals and conservatives who, being conviction politicians, do not always play well with others. [...] Does America need a cure for 'partisanship,' the supposed disease of leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson at the birth of America's party system? Does America need a nominating process that narrows choices by stacking the deck against minor parties? Does it need a process that produces 'pragmatic' candidates who, because they have no ballast of 'ideology,' a.k.a ideas, and are not rendered 'rigid' by convictions, can 'reach across the aisle' to achieve compromises congenial to the entire political class? Does America need a nominating process that, suppressing candid partisanship, will tempt stealthy partisans to game the system by voting a weak candidate into the top two?"
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Free association: Are open primaries consistent with right of free association?

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Pro

  • Primaries too important in democracy to be internal to parties. While there is a right to association, this has to be balanced against the role that primaries play, fundamentally, in the electoral process and in democracy. Parties do not own this process. They are a part of it. And, in a system dominated by two parties - the Democrats and Republicans - closed primaries give parties a monopoly on power. This is inappropriate. And, open primaries help bring the system back into an appropriate balance.
  • Closed primaries can also violate free assoc While opponents of open primaries try to raise constitutional issues with Open Primaries, they fail to realize that this argument cuts both ways. The most popular alternative to the open primary is the closed primary. And, the closed primary can also be construed as unconstitutional. In Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut, the United States Supreme Court determined that Connecticut’s closed primary law was unconstitutional. The Connecticut closed primary law “[required] voters in any political party primary to be registered members of that party.”[4]


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Con

  • Open primaries violate right of free association Opponents of the open primary argue that the open primary is unconstitutional. These opponents believe that the open primary law violates their freedom of association, because it forces them to allow outsiders to select their candidates.
State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) said in opposition to Open Primaries: "Why on Earth would anyone think that my opponents have any right to pick my nominee?. The Washington Redskins don't let the Dallas Cowboys in their huddle when they're calling plays."[5]
  • Primaries are internal matters for party to choose best candidate James Frye. "Why open primaries are a really bad idea." Liberaland. June 9th, 2010: "The arguments for open primaries tend to go for the “it allows more voters to participate” line. That’s fine for November when everybody can vote for anybody. Primaries are (or should be) an internal function of the political parties. No one outside of nonpartisan offices are elected to anything on primary day: this is the chance for party members to decide who they think would be the best candidate for their party for the general election. If you want to participate, register to vote with a party affiliation. Doing that doesn’t mean that you have to vote for the candidates of the party exclusively and forever, it just allows you to help pick their candidates
  • General election are open; primaries are OK to be closed. The general election is where all of the electorate can vote for whomever they like. There is no reason to, therefore, make the primaries open. This would be repetitive and in some ways eliminate the function and purpose of primaries in democracy.
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Manipulation: Are open primaries at risk of voter manipulation?

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Pro

  • Manipulative tactics in open primaries rarely materialize Kirk Johnson. "In open primary, fear of party crashing." New York Times. June 15, 2010: "So-called tactical voting in open primaries, here and elsewhere, is a perennial possibility that mostly fizzles come Election Day, voting experts say. And some people in both parties are convinced that will happen again here. [...] Mr. Wimmer, for example, who initially floated the idea of Republicans voting for Ms. Wright on his Facebook page last month, later withdrew the post and denounced the idea. A spokesman for the Utah Tea Party movement, David Kirkham, also said the group was opposed to members voting in the Democratic primary. 'We don’t play in the gutter,' Mr. Kirkham, adding that believed deliberate cross-party interference would be against Tea Party principles."


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Con

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) said in opposition to Open Primaries: "Why on Earth would anyone think that my opponents have any right to pick my nominee?. The Washington Redskins don't let the Dallas Cowboys in their huddle when they're calling plays."[6]


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Party power: Do open primaries increase/decrease party power?

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Pro

  • Parties like closed primaries because extremes help fundraising Jim Boren. "Why open primary is good." Merced Sun Star. June 15th, 2010: "Here's the real reason the major parties in California don't like open primaries: They will lose power if politics become more moderate in the Golden State. They fear that lawmakers in the political middle will find compromises to our most difficult problems. That would mean that the political extremists on the left and the right will not be able to control the debate. Party opposition to open primaries goes back to money. The Republicans raise money by telling people on their mailing list that they need to send $100 to the party or the Democrats will push through tax increases. The Democrats raise money by telling its members to send money or the Republicans will close the public schools. How are they going to raise money if all they have to report to party members is the budget crisis has been solved with a bipartisan agreement to make cuts and raise revenue?"
  • Open primaries free candidates from party affiliations. In many open primaries, candidates have the option to affiliate with a party, but they are not required to have "D" or "R" next to their name on the ballot. This generally frees politicians from the current, excessive dependence on party affiliation and the political machines that run elections and often strong-arm candidates on the positions they will take.
  • Open primaries favor new candidates over establishment. Why open primaries? OpenPrimaries.org: "Closed primaries favor candidates who are supported by the party establishment and make it nearly impossible for insurgents and new leaders to win elections."



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Con

  • Open primaries allow nominations inconsistent with party views James Paterson. "Open Primaries threaten Liberal values." Menzies House. April 20th, 2010: "widening the group of people who have preselection voting rights will undoubtedly result in less ideological candidates being preselected to represent the Liberal Party. Liberal Party members, as active committed Liberals, are likely to be signifcantly more ideological than an average Liberal voter who may register to vote in a preselection. They are more likely to place weight on philosophical sophistication and on the importance to adhering to Liberal values than general Liberal voters. Indeed, the major reason the Liberal Party Federally reversed its position on the Emissions Trading Scheme was that Liberal Party members bombarded their MPs about their strong views on the scheme. If those Party members did not have the threat of recrimination at a future preselection, they would lose all ability to influence their MPs."
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Same-party candidates: Is it OK to advance two candidates from same party?

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Pro

  • Open primaries would rarely lead to two nominees of same party. "California open primaries? Give them a chance." Los Angeles Times Editorial. February 11th, 2010: "In a heavily Democratic legislative district, it's possible that the runoff could pit two Democrats against each other -- one a liberal, the other more moderate. Ditto a district dominated by GOP voters -- a conservative against a centrist. [...] But the vast majority of runoffs would involve a traditional matchup between a Democrat and a Republican."


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Con

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Election cost: Can costs of open primaries be kept down?

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Pro

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Pro/con sources

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