You're Viewing the Archives
Return to IVN's Frontpage

Open Primary Totally Partisan

by Amelia Timbers, published

The open primary policy proposed by Sen. Abel Maldonado in the midnight hour of budget talks is not beneficial to California's independent voters. It does not increase candidate choice, it does not increase democracy, it will not prevent the budget crises nor will it prevent the Maldanados of the future.

Despite the context in which it was presented, an open primary will not solve budget impasses. The budget gridlock resulted from California's unreasonable requirement for a supermajority for the passage of budget bills. This requirement has brought California to the brink of fiscal collapse before and, regardless of who is in the legislature, it will occur again unless the system is modified.

The alleged relationship between budget impasses and an open primary is that moderate candidates might have agreed to a budget earlier, and an open primary could produce more moderate candidates. The problem of the supermajority is not connected to moderacy; in the future, a small group of moderates could hold out just like the Republicans did this time. Indeed, this budget impasse occurred under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the most moderate Republicans to ever hold the California governorship. The budget issues are emphatically tied to the supermajority requirement, not to a general flaw with partisan primary system.

Revisiting the hypothesis that an open primary yields moderate candidates: it is an unfounded hope. An open primary actually allows for more partisanship. Currently, the top Democrat, Republican and third party candidates normally appear on Californians' ballots for state and congressional elections. In an open primary, only the top two winners become candidates. This means that in districts where Democrats or Republicans are the minority, entire parties may not be on the ticket at all. A ticket could consists of all Republicans, all Democrats or all unaffiliated as long as they won the top two most votes. This worsens the plight of independent voters, who already feel hamstrung between only two choices. How about one choice? Cutting out the minority voice in certain districts hurts democracy there and will discourage turnout.

Beyond this, the open primary allows for partisan sabotage. Republicans can vote for the weakest Democrats, and Democrats for the weakest Republicans. This increases the likelihood that Californians will get stuck with two incompetent choices born of bitter sabotage voting, currently blocked by party based primaries. Republicans are experts on Republicans; Democrats on Democrats. Party based primaries do not reduce democracy or produce extremism; rather, they encourage the candidates with the most sophisticated views within their parties to win. Additionally, partisan candidates are always forced to the center when they run in the general election after the primary. What the open primary suggests is two general elections. This model is unlikely to advance policy.

It is easy to understand why open primaries appeal to independent voters, especially when Republicans do not allow independent votes in primaries (though Democrats do). Many independent voters are not amicable to committing to a party, or their beliefs fall outside the standard deviations of just one party. In this context, voting for a party-less candidate appears good, though it is not actually good. The true solution for independent voters is ironic; independent voters should strengthen their own party.

Being an independent voter does not mean being without conviction. Independent voters typically hold distinct values; they are often more moderate, but incorporate a higher rate of libertarian values, also mixing in values from both liberal and conservative heritages. Independent voters should put their democratic efforts into strengthening the independent party into one that can put forth a competitive candidate in a partisan primary system. Independents need to provide a true independent candidate, not a partisan candidate posing as moderate to win, the open primary model.

The hope that an open primary will somehow shortcut the hard democratic effort required of independent voters to see their views realized is foolish. Independent voters deserve real representation, not just Republican or Democratic candidates diluting their partisan platforms to win maximum votes in an open primary. We must refuse seductive but misguided policies like an open primary in favor of the hard work of democratic participation via party based processes that safeguard the voices of the minority.

About the Author