Making Nonpartisan Primaries Better: Modify the Top-Two Selection Process

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Lately, the discussion about primary elections has been from supporters of a “nonpartisan open primary” system. This is a method of choosing the candidates in the general election where all of the candidates take part in the same primary and the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election. California has adopted this type of a system for all primaries except the presidential primary.

Louisiana and Washington state have similar primary systems in many of their elections, but there are some issues with this system that should be resolved before it can really create an election system that is fairer.  The most significant problem is that it could result in a general election with two candidates of the same party, alienating voters outside of that party.

First, we need to correct the terms that have been used, because proposals are often passed because their names sound good, instead of the true meaning of the terms. Fairvote.org describes the different primary systems best:

  • An open primary means that anyone can vote in the primary, it is not for party members only.
  • A closed primary is only for registered members of a party.
  • A semi-closed primary is a mix, where registered members of a party must vote in their party’s primary and unregistered or independent voters can choose which primary to vote in.
  • A top-two primary is where all candidates are on the same ballot and the two candidates with the most votes move to the general election, unless one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote and is then declared the winner.

, where the voter does not have to be registered with a party to vote in that party’s primary. Several states leave it up to the party to decide if their primary is open, closed, or semi-closed.  In other states, it is mandated by law. However, in all states, the primaries are paid for with tax money.

So, it is their right to select their own candidate by whatever means that party decides, whether it be with their own election, by committee, or by bargaining agreements.

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The right to association in the First Amendment gives the parties the right to hold closed sessions for selecting their candidate, and their candidate should have the support of those who are registered in the party, because these are private groups. This is supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

However, since they are private groups, the public should not pay for whatever process a party uses to choose their candidates. Most importantly, since the party is supposed to rally behind a candidate, there should only be one candidate from a party in a general election. This is a problem with top-two primaries, it is possible that the two candidates in a general election are from one party.

Supporters of open primaries claim that closed primaries (where only party members can vote for their nominee) exclude independent and third-party voters. This is true. But, why would a private group want outsiders to influence their choice?

The problem with the closed primaries for the major parties is that they are publicly funded. So, the open primary supporters say that they should have a vote since they are paying for it. They also claim that closed primaries increase the radicalization within a party because they have to cater to their base.

Open partisan primaries, critics say, give the opportunity for members of opposing parties to “infiltrate” the party and vote against those that would give the most competition. Also, the opposing party voters and independents can make a different candidate become the nominee from a party by voting for a candidate whose platform is more like theirs and less inline with party ideals.

Again, this reduces the ability of a private organization to determine their own preferences.

Semi-closed systems try to alleviate the problems with open and closed partisan primaries by not allowing registered voters of different parties to vote in the primary of a party. This allows independents and other unregistered voters to have a voice in primaries. But, again this taints the true ideals of a party.

A party, as a private organization, should only have its members decide who to nominate for an office. Since it is private, it should be privately funded. The nomination should be solidified by collecting the required number of signatures to get on the ballot from its members.

Once a candidate is nominated by a party through closed primary voting, they can then go on to a top-two primary. This eliminates multiple candidates from the same party entering the top-two system. Independents can join the open nonpartisan primary with required signatures. The possibility exists where a candidate loses a closed primary then joining the open top-two primary as an independent.  So, once a candidate runs in a closed primary, they should not be allowed to run in the open top-two primary unless they win the party’s nomination.

Imagine ten candidates for an office in an open primary with the following percent of the vote: two Democrats (15% and 13%), two Republicans (12% and 11%), one libertarian (10%), one green (9%), one from a moderate party (9%), one very conservative independent (7%), one very liberal independent (7%), and one centrist independent (7%).

The two Democrats would go to the general election with only 28 percent of the vote. There would be 44 percent voting for liberals (considering both democrats are considered liberals), 40 percent voting conservative (considering both republicans and the libertarian are thought of as conservatives), and 16% moderates or centrists. In this case, 56 percent are voting against liberals and are not represented in the general election. And, if the other liberals are anti-Democratic Party, that is 62 percent unrepresented.

Now, if the Democrats have their votes combined to one candidate and the Republicans the same, then you have a general election with 28 percent and 23 percent, respectively, or 51 percent of primary votes represented with a wider spectrum of the political ideology.

So, how does this improve the primary system? Independents and third-parties will gain more popularity in time because the two major parties will become more polarized through the closed primary and lose the voters outside of that idealism. But, the two major parties benefit by not having to alienate their base before entering the open top-two primary, where they will still retain the votes of unregistered party loyalists.

Voters end up with more choices that represent more of the political spectrum. This will be reinforced if all of the candidates are allowed to participate in debates before the top-two primary.