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Political parties feeling the threat of non-partisan primaries

by Chad Peace, published

Recently, a bipartisan group in Arizona has gone public with its intention to promote a constitutional amendment for a non-partisan primary modeled after California's Proposition 14, which decisively passed last year.

A few days later, I was forwarded a message from Mark Hinkle, Chairman of the Libertarian Party, by Christina Tobin, a respected advocate of fair elections, stating, "Make no mistake, they are trying to kill off all competition at the ballot box.” (emphasis added). Who 'they’ are, or what type of ‘competition’ is being killed was not defined.

As a bit of background, Chairman Hinkle ran for state senate as a Libertarian for the seat vacated by Abel Maldonado after he was appointed Lieutenant Governor. Maldonado (R) happened to be a key player in getting Proposition 14 on the ballot amid fierce opposition from both the Democrats and Republicans. Presumably, the Chairman was referring to the powers that be: the Republican and Democratic parties. From his perspective, because only two candidates make it through the primary to the general election, only Republicans and Democrats would have a chance to participate in the general election. Therefore, third parties would be cut out of the debate and the election process in general.

But, if that's the case, then why are the Republican and Democratic parties the biggest opponents of open primary systems?

As a practical matter, elections are decided during the primary. Because districts across the country have been steadily gerrymandered over the last several decades, the vast majority of districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican. As a result, whoever wins the majority party’s primary is all but guaranteed to win the general election.

Simply put, partisan primaries force candidates to campaign along partisan issues, to debate with partisan talking points, and to cater to the partisan voter. As a result, the candidate who is running for office is forced to be the best Mr. Republican or Ms. Democrat that he or she can be.

Today, however, Republican and Democratic registration numbers are plummeting and a diminishing number of voters are participating in party primaries. As a result, candidates are now catering to a smaller and smaller percentage of the electorate. And as this minority shrinks further, moderate voters within a party become less influential relative to the party-line voters and activists that dominate a party’s base.

Perhaps competition among parties is a benefactor of partisan primaries. With more and more voters becoming disaffected with the process, third parties and independent movements like the Tea Party are becoming more viable as an increasing number of disenchanted R’s and D’s join their causes. Logically, this should produce a greater diversity of ideas, viewpoints, and candidates.

However, the state of our government would indicate that such competition has not produced a politically advantageous result. More than ever, our political process is being held hostage by partisan squabble, ridicule, and divide. As the number and influence of special interest groups increase, the stranglehold of the two-party plutocracy only grows stronger, and the Independent voter becomes more and more disenfranchised. Consequently, we have a system that represents parties and special interest groups instead of people.

This anomaly might be explained by contrasting the competition that is lost(competition between parties) with the competition that is gained under a non-partisan system (competition between candidates). Under the partisan system, votes cast by non-partisan and independent-minded voters on the general election day are de facto meaningless, because the competitiverace occurs during the primary.

In a non-partisan system, on the other hand, candidates must take positions that appeal to a broader constituency because every candidate is forced to draw his/her votes from the same pool of voters. Therefore, candidates are encouraged to take positions based on public sentiment as a whole, rather than championing their purely partisan credentials. In other words, partisan candidates are forced to competefor voters who are not easily swayed by a talking points memo.

Such a restructuring of the political process makes it more difficult for partisan candidates to over-simplify the issues and divide the electorate. And, naturally, this makes it harder for partisans to compete with independent-minded candidatesat the polls, just as Chariman Hinkle has warned.

**Article originally posted on

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