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Nonpartisan Primaries vs. Open Primaries: Fundamentally Different

by Edward Bonnette, published

The debate about primary systems often confuses partisan Open Primaries with Nonpartisan 'Top-Two' primaries.

While there are any number of variations, primary system choices basically boil down to these two plus traditional Closed Partisan Primaries in which each Party chooses its nominees in elections subject to rules established by each Party. In most cases, parties choose to allow only voters registered in their Party to participate. Some political parties in some states allow various forms of so-called crossover voting or the participation of independent or non-affiliated voters.

 All of this sounds, and is, confusing.

Many people hear the phrase ‘open primary’ and assume that this is the most transparent and fair type of primary system. But, “open” primaries are still partisan elections in which nominees from each party are selected.  The open primary system, which a number of states already use, allows for any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, to vote in any one party primary.

This means a Republican or undeclared voter could vote in the Democratic Party primary, or vice versa. This set-up, however, means that only one candidate from each party can go on to the general election since the open system only allows you to vote in a party’s primary. Parties still have the power to control who they think will be the strongest single candidate to represent the party in the general election, not necessarily the voters.

The nonpartisan ‘top-two’ (sometimes called a ‘jungle’ primary system by more partisan leaning academics) puts all candidates onto one ballot. Every registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, may vote for any candidate. This system has been met with both praise and criticism.

NonPartisan v. Open Primaries

Non partisan Top-Two primaries allow voters to vote for whomever they feel best represents them, without regard to partisan affiliation.

This also means that two candidates from the same party may advance to the general election. This could benefit voters in areas where one party historically dominates. It gives candidates a chance that they would not have if only one member from each party could advance.

It also gives voters in these areas, who are not a part of the dominate party, to still have their voice heard. If an area is completely dominated by the Democratic Party, this system allows a Republican or some other party affiliate voter to at least vote for the Democrat who represents them best.

Currently, only two states use the non partisan ‘top-two’ form of primary voting; Washington and California. Washington adopted the process through Initiative 872 in 2004, and California through Proposition 14 in 2010. It seems likely that many states across the nation will attempt to follow suit.

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If nothing else, the top-two primary system has stimulated discussion about much needed voter reform. Independent analysis has confirmed that nonpartisan top two primaries created a more competitive political environment in California where it was only recently adopted. However, backers of closed primaries argue that this has resulted in a greater need for political fundraising because there are more close races.

Generally, political parties do not like nonpartisan top two primaries because they see same party contests in the general election as a drain on partisan resources. Some third party advocates oppose nonpartisan top two because they feel it is important that third party candidates are present on the November ballot to be “part of the debate” even if they do not have a chance to win.

Nonpartisan top two advocates counter that minor party candidates have more say and a greater chance to actually win under top two and that the partisan primary systems are all designed to virtually eliminate the possibility of an independent candidate being successful.

Whether this will be a growing trend in the other 48 states has yet to be seen.

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