Open Primary Movement Seeks to Empower Voters to Break Gridlock

(Austen Leake/Tribune-Star via AP)

(CN) – There are more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States setting up a run against Republican Donald Trump in 2020.

As stragglers continue to throw their hat in the ring, the historically large field is solidifying.

While media attention will continue to hone in on the candidates, their pronouncements, the polls, the campaign tours with the photo-ops and gaffes — a group of activists are attempting to shift awareness to a specific aspect of the electoral process itself that they say is equally if not more determinative in who occupies the presidency and the rest of the highest offices in the land.

Despite ample attention paid to the viability of the electoral college, or the disenfranchisement of minority voters — and the individuals interviewed for this story are quick to say both are issues worthy of attention — these activists are more concerned about a voter rights issue of an even greater scale that present a greater range of implications for how and by whom citizens are governed.

“Traditional closed primaries are the largest active voter disenfranchisement currently happening in this country by several orders of magnitude,” said Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, a non-profit dedicated to open and nonpartisan primary systems.

The issue is so important to activists because of two trends in the American electorate.

One is that in states where one party dominates — like California or Mississippi — primary elections are actually more important than general elections in determining the type of representation for a given constituency. The second trend is the rise of the independent voter as more and more citizens decline to register with the Democratic or the Republican Party.

Open primaries

“Given how critical primary elections are in selecting the ultimate winner, we believe they ought to be open to every voter at every stage,” said Jim Jonas, executive director of the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers.

Voters use electronic voting devices at the Centerpoint Plaza in Aurora, Colorado, on Nov. 6, 2018. (Amanda Pampuro/CNS)

Jonas’ work has been mostly based in Colorado, where he and a collection of activists succeeded in pressuring the state to open their primaries in 2016.

Jonas viewed the shift as paramount due to the increasing numbers of independent voters being shut out of primary elections even as those elections increase in importance.

Other activists agree.  

“In 2016, there were 26 million people who were registered as independent voters,” Gruber said. “We’re witnessing a historic shift in the partisan composition of this country.”

The trend toward independence and away from political parties only figures to intensify, as more than 50 percent of millennial voters decline to affiliate with either party. Polls across the country indicate an electorate that is disgusted with hyper partisan politics.

Nevertheless, in states with closed primaries — and there are at least 13 — those voters are excluded from a critical part of the process.

For instance, in New Jersey, which has broken Democratic for seven consecutive elections, it is safe to say the race between Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and others to become the Democratic nominee for president will be a lot more competitive than the race between any of those nominees and Donald Trump.

But because New Jersey, which is about 50 percent independent, has traditionally closed primaries, almost half of its electorate will be prevented from weighing in on that decision.

“Half of the voting population, all of whom are taxpayers who help fund the primary election, are precluded from voting at the first and important stage of the election process,” said Chad Peace, a legal strategist for the Independent Voter Project. “And they are excluded from this important stage by virtue of exercising the right to not join an organization they don’t agree with.”

It’s not only presidential politics. In states where one party dominates, independent voters could have a tremendous influence on the type of Democrat or Republican elected to the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives, should they be allowed to participate.

Colorado, Texas, Virginia and many other states have attempted to confront this problem by allowing independent voters to choose a ballot, choosing whether they want to participate in the Republican or Democratic primary.

But Jonas said there are limitations to this format as well.

“The voters complain about having to pick one party or another,” Jonas said.

In Colorado, for instance, should a voter who votes in one party’s primary in a given election cycle want to vote in the opposite party’s the following cycle, that voter has to undergo a re-registration process Jonas described as “onerous.”

The top-two

Such limitations are why the individuals interviewed for this story almost universally endorsed the top-two primary system or “jungle primaries” — a truly open system where all voters, regardless of party, can participate in the primary stage by casting a single vote for the candidate they deem the best.

Under the top-two system — which exists in similar formats in Washington state, Louisiana and Nebraska — all candidates are listed on the same primary ballot and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, advance to the general election. (Nebraska uses top two at state and local levels only).

“The top-two has been a major success in emphasizing the purpose of a public election,” Peace said. “Traditional primaries are focused on nominating the candidate who will serve the party, but elections should serve voters not political parties.”

Critics of open primaries have pointed to their supposed failure to reduce polarization. In California, the Legislature is still dominated by the Democrats, the criticism goes, while the same number of bills introduced by each party has been relatively static both previous and after the adoption of top-two primary formats.

Political scientists point to a raft of studies showing that political partisanship does not decline relative to the openness of primaries, mostly because independent voters often maintain strong ideological preferences that belie their preference for nonpartisan status.

“We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremism of the politicians it produces,” researchers said in one recent study.

But Gruber says quantitative measurement of political moderation is the wrong way to look at the effectiveness of open primaries.

“It’s not about electing moderates, it’s about empowering candidates to reach out and be more responsive to a broader cross section of their constituency,” he said. “Elected officials are going to be more likely to work across the aisle if they are more accountable to a much broader portion of the electorate.”

Other fears associated with open primaries like “crossover voting” or “party crashing” — where members of one party vote for the weaker candidate in the other party to make a general election victory more likely — haven’t materialized, according to Gruber.

“There’s a reason these examples are theoretical and don’t come from the real world,” he said. “It doesn’t happen. People vote their vote.”

Peace also says recent studies conducted at University of Southern California by Charles Munger Jr. have shown the top-two primary is working in California.

Same party races in California have become more competitive. Uncontested elections, once common, have become vanishingly rare.

In places like San Diego, where a Republican is almost sure to win a congressional seat, races between Republicans ensure there is less complacency and office holders must still work to earn votes. It is vice versa for Democrats in San Francisco, according to Munger’s conclusions.

Furthermore, voter apathy is tempered, as voter drop-off is low in same party races.

Some 88% of voters who did not share the party of candidates voted in same party legislative races while 95% voted in different-party general elections, according to the study.

Presidential Primary

While California’s preference for the top-two format is championed by open primary advocates, it only applies to the U.S. Congress, state and local races.

Regarding the presidential primary, California is less open than many states.  

“We have a confusing semi-closed primary,” said Peace.

By contrast, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, Indiana and most of the southern states have varying degrees of open presidential primaries, where voters are asked to pick a Republican or Democratic ballot.

In the Golden State, the GOP does not allow non-party members to vote in its presidential primary and voters who decline to state party preference must specifically request a ballot to participate in the Democratic presidential primary.

The problem is further exacerbated by the presence of the American Independent Party in California, Peace said. Many voters register as American Independents by mistake, instead of registering as “decline to state” thereby accidentally disqualifying themselves from the presidential primary.  

There is a solution to the problem according to Peace and his allies.

Peace and the Independent Voter Project are advocating for a “public primary” format in California.

Under a public primary, every ballot in the Golden State would have a section where every registered voter would be allowed to vote in the presidential primary. Peace said the party could still issue their own ballots, meaning the public primary would only be a supplement and not a replacement of the current format.  

“It would be a separate tally,” Peace said. “The party could still run their primary ballots the way they’ve always done.”

The voter project’s proposed compromise derives in part from a complicated legal history in California, where the state Supreme Court ruled political parties, which are private organizations, cannot be forced to allow non-members to participate.

“But on the other side is the right of the voter to participate,” Peace said. “Our proposal satisfies both rights, that of the party’s right to a private nomination process and the voters’ right to participate.”

Peace further notes that voters in presidential primaries do not decide who gets nominated. That’s ultimately up to party delegates.

So a public primary wouldn’t be binding for political delegates, meaning the specter of crossover voting or party crashing would be mitigated if not neutralized.

“Our argument is that a public primary would provide the party with more information on who should be the nominee,” Peace said.

What’s to come

This movement toward more open primaries and a more nonpartisan electoral process isn’t relegated to California, Colorado or the other states that have recently moved to adopt open primary policies.

Currently, New York, Maine, Mississippi, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Idaho and Oregon have all introduced bills mandating the implementation of nonpartisan top-two elections. Those bills are at various stages in the electoral process.

In Florida, where an estimated 27% of the electorate is not registered to a party, a movement is afoot to place an initiative on the 2020 ballot that will ask voters in the critical battleground state to decide whether to implement a top-two open primary.

Advocates hope Florida and the other states will provide further proof that open primaries provide an electoral system less beholden to party apparatus and more directly accountable voters.

“Open primaries are not only about voting rights, they not only serve to diminish disenfranchisement,” Peace said. “But they affect how we are governed. It is time to spread accountability to a broader breadth and stop making elected officials only responsive to the most partisan among us.”

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