Taxpayers Spent Half a BILLION Dollars on Party Primaries in 2016

Author: Marisa Gomez
Created: 21 July, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
3 min read

Republican and Democratic parties are in the middle of conducting their national conventions, leaving behind a primary season full of voter confusion, lawsuits, voter purges, and controversial election rules. And as the media spends little time focusing on the fundamental question of whether the purpose of primary elections is to serve voters or political parties, millions of voters who were disenfranchised by party primaries this year had no choice but to pay for the expensive cost to administer them.

Data regarding the costs of primary elections is difficult to find. In most cases, states need to be contacted directly. Open Primaries, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to primary election reform, estimates in a recent study that the costs for the 2016 primaries nationwide totaled nearly half a billion, more than half of which was spent on closed primary elections which, by law, exclude the very taxpayers that fund them.

Open Primaries reports that over 26.3 million voters were locked out of closed primary elections nationwide -- elections that serve the private purpose of selecting party candidates -- because they were not registered to vote with the Republican or Democratic Party. Yet, closed primaries alone cost taxpayers an estimated $287 million.

When all partisan primary elections, including semi-closed and open primaries, are included in the estimate, the total cost for all private party primaries nationwide was estimated to be $427,300,168.79. And even this amount, the group believes, underestimates the complete financial impact of party primaries in the United States.

For instance, current cost estimations don't factor in less definable costs like the number of hours expended by salaried public employees, the cost of dealing with confused voters, and the administrative burden of providing different ballots for each political party.

The study's findings are also in line with research conducted by IVN in 2012, which estimated almost the same financial cost to taxpayers for the 2012 presidential primary election.

Jeremy Gruber, who conducted Open Primaries' study, believes the issue is much bigger than is commonly treated. He referred to closed primary elections as the “greatest act of voter suppression in this country... and we have to pay for it.”

In an interview with IVN, Cara McCormick, president of Level the Playing Field, said, "Right now, the American political system unfairly restricts competition outside of the two major parties. Closed primaries paid for with taxpayer dollars are a good example of how our elections have been rigged by insiders to perpetuate the two-party system."

Level the Playing Field (LPF) is currently suing the Federal Election Commission (FEC) over the Commission on Presidential Debates' (CPD) rules for candidate inclusion in the fall debates. LPF argues that the bipartisan commission and its rules violate federal regulations that require debate sponsors to be nonpartisan and use "objective criteria" to determine debate eligibility.

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LPF says the commission's rules are intentionally designed to keep independent and third party candidates out of the national dialogue.

"When 43 percent of American voters refuse to identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans, we need to work for political reforms that open up the system and allow those voices to be represented in our democracy," McCormick added.

In April, the Independent Voter Project (IVP), authors of California's new nonpartisan statewide primary system, filed an amicus curiae supporting Level the Playing Field’s case against the CPD. The amicus recognizes that both primary elections and presidential debates almost exclusively serve the Republican and Democratic parties.

“Put simply, the two major parties have complete control over the initial and most important stages of the political process, including the primary elections and the presidential debates… The consequence of this electoral reality is that nonpartisan voters have a very limited opportunity to  participate meaningfully in the selection of the viable candidates, unless they forfeit their First Amendment right not to association with a private political party. ” – IVP Amicus Brief

Independent voters, numbering almost 50% of the electorate by self-identification, are gaining momentum as the American public feels less inclined to pledge allegiance to a private political party. The system that serves fewer and fewer voters is losing support nationwide.

At a cost of almost half a billion dollars, we might want to ask why taxpayers are stuck paying for it.

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