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Open Primaries Spark Debate

by Dennis "DJ" Mikolay, published

Regardless of one’s party affiliation or political views, it is obvious there is something seriously wrong with the way elections are conducted in the United States. They are expensive, exclusive, and regularly disenfranchise a tremendous portion of the electorate.

The image of party bosses meeting in backrooms to determine what candidates the public will be allowed to vote for has been etched in the country’s collective conscious for years, fueling the belief that a person’s vote “doesn’t really matter,” particularly when it comes to choosing between undesirable, pre-selected candidates. This mindset has fueled intense cynicism within the electorate, forcing the people out of the very same system they allegedly control.

To observers and pundits, it is often hard to pin down exactly what caused the rotting of America’s sacred right of voting and the accompanying skepticism on behalf of voters. For former California State Senator Stephen Peace, it boils down to the primaries.

As one of the members of the Independent Voter Network’s Board of Directors, Senator Peace has argued for the abolition of the traditional closed partisan primary in favor of the open, non-partisan model, which would allow voters to support any candidate they choose, regardless of party affiliation. Whichever two candidates receive the most votes will move on to the General Election (even if they both represent the same party).

It’s a controversial idea, but after witnessing the system in action during its brief implementation in California more than a decade ago, Senator Peace became convinced such reforms improved the function of government and enfranchised independents.

Senator Peace noticed that legislators who were once concerned mostly with pleasing the party higher-ups and partisan voters were now comfortable governing based upon their own principles. They knew appeasing the public—not just Democrats or Republicans—was necessary to survive future primaries. It’s a concept that’s alien in a closed system, but the increased civility and effectiveness was enough to turn Senator Peace, one of very few politicians to support the open-primaries at the time of their proposal, into one of their most vocal and ardent supporters.

Though the Supreme Court struck down California’s original open primary, arguing it violated the Democratic and Republican Party’s rights of private association, a similar measure passed in 2010, once again allowing the general public to participate in the state's primaries.

“My personal view is their value is often misunderstood,” said Senator Peace. “It’s not about philosophy, it’s the difference between adult behavior and childish behavior. Closed, partisan primaries produce the behavior expected in a system where decisions are made by a small minority of people. Open primaries encourage more democratic behavior and form a representative government.”

Senator Peace believes open primaries free elected officials from having to tow the party line by making them accountable to the electorate as a whole, not just the handful of partisans who participate in closed primaries. In his own words, “you had legislators feeling they could vote their conscience!” In an age where independents account for an increasingly sizable portion of the electorate, open primaries allow unaffiliated voters to have a say in the primary process.

“We are living in an era when voters are increasingly voting with their feet,” said Senator Peace. “They are leaving both political parties and choosing to remain unaffiliated. The difference between non-partisan top two primaries is that the core voting right emanates from a status as an individual; in all closed primaries, the voter is able to get superior rights by joining an organization. I think it is fundamentally un-American to make someone join an organization to get higher voting rights.”

Though Senator Peace believes open primaries represent a beneficial alternative to the traditional model, the top-two system is not without its critics. Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and a long-time activist for third party causes, is among those who oppose its implementation. Winger sees the top-two system as restrictive; the smorgasbord of candidates in a General Election becomes a thing of the past.

“I have to be honest and admit it gives voters in the primary more freedom,” Winger said. “But the trouble is that it gives general election voters a lot less freedom!”

He also points out that in Louisiana’s long used top-two system, there is only a run-off election if a candidate fails to receive more than fifty-percent of the vote on the first ballot. That is not the case in California where, even if a candidate receives the majority during the primary, the state still has to pay to print a second round of ballots.

“For me, an election is defined as something that elects somebody,” he said. “Our June primary can’t elect anybody because even if someone gets one-hundred percent of the vote they have to run in the General Election.”

Winger compares the top-two system to the recent elections in Egypt, where voters were asked to choose between a Hosni Mubarack loyalist and the Muslim Brotherhood, choices that were unappealing to advocates of secular democratic reforms. The lack of a third candidate prompted many to boycott the election altogether, resulting in the victory of religious extremists.

He sees the 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial election as evidence such a scenario could play out in the United States. Former Governor and convicted felon Edwin Edwards and State Representative David Duke, a former Klansmen, defeated moderate incumbent Governor Buddy Roemer and emerged as the top two vote getters. Thus, the campaign season became a showdown between to polarizing choices, referred to by disillusioned cynics as “the Lizard” and “the Wizard.”  In Winger’s eyes, this situation would never have played out if Louisiana followed a more traditional system of elections.

“If Louisiana had a closed primary, exit polling was done that showed [David] Duke did not do well at all among registered Republicans,” said Winger. “Under a closed system, he would have had to run in the Republican primary and would have lost. It was segregationist Democrats who voted for him.”

Of course, advocates of the top-two system are justified in pointing out that extremists have won closed primaries as well. Senator Peace, in fact, campaigned for the opponent of Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi who won the 1980 Democratic primary in California’s 43rd Congressional District.

Winger sees the blanket primary, where all candidates appear on the ballot and the top voter getters from every party move on to the General Election, thus eliminating the “top two” component, as a superior compromise. Though the Supreme Court invalidated California’s previous blanket primary for violating the major party’s right of association, Winger believes the blanket primary could be tweaked to operate within constitutional boundaries, thus enfranchising voters during both elections.

The debate regarding which system is superior has raged for decades and will likely continue for years to come. Proponents on both sides seek to reform the electoral process to promote greater public input and higher government accountability, providing more efficient, less corrupt representation than Americans currently enjoy.

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