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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Open primaries: a winning strategy to crack the 2-party duopoly


Welcome to Winning Wednesday!


Here’s a palate cleanser after yesterday’s presidential primary sludge.  I found myself thinking wistfully back to that great moment early in The West Wing when Sam Seaborn stands up and, walking away from his lucrative fossil fuel-supporting career, says “I’m going to New Hampshire!”  I also thought back to December 2019, when I joined a large caravan from NYC to campaign for Bernie, who finished first in New Hampshire in 2020.  Good times.


Anyway, NBC News tells us that “at least six states are considering changing their primary election systems in 2024, with nearly all looking at ways to open up partisan primaries to involve more voters.”  I found this story through Yahoo News, a favorite source of mine. Why is this a potential victory for progressives?  Let’s have a look see.


I do have some mixed feelings about this.  When I was in the Green Party, we had regular incursions of people petitioning to run on our party line without our knowledge or consent.  We didn’t have the resources to stay on top of every office, and it was damaging.  Having non-members voting in our primaries could have opened us up to more shenanigans. There is a place for at least some party control over primaries.  Then again, our party stood for something real and valuable.  I’m not sure the same can be said for Republicans or Democrats anymore. 


Why partisan primaries are bad


As NBC notes, “Partisan primaries are some of the lowest-turnout [in local elections, they can sink to single-digit turnout] and most important elections in the US, where gerrymandering has significantly reduced the number of competitive races.”  


With most districts heavily tilted to one party or the other, these non-representative primary elections often serve as de facto general elections.  Except in ranked choice elections, this can lead to people getting into office with support from a tiny minority of voters.


This has helped us elect some progressives.  More often, it has helped elect and insulate the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world, who not only hold extreme positions, but know and care nothing about governing, as well as garden-variety corrupt and incompetent people.


Most importantly, it can leave non-affiliated or “independent” voters with no voice in these all-important primaries.  According to a Gallup poll in spring 2023, nearly half of all American voters are independent. 


The current landscape


Only eight states have completely closed primaries (only registered party members can vote). Sixteen states allow voters to choose a primary to vote in, regardless of registration (and some states don’t have partisan registration).  In some places, you have to request the desired ballot ahead of time.


A few states, including California and Alaska, have a single primary for all the parties’ candidates (colloquially known as a “jungle primary”) and allow multiple candidates from the same party, if they place highly enough, to advance to the general election, potentially leaving some parties off the general election ballot.


Three swing states mulling change: PA, AZ, NV


In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers advanced two bills out of committee last fall that would allow independent voters to cast ballots in partisan primaries.  It seems the process is still playing out. All of the state’s living former governors say unaffiliated voters should be able to vote in party primaries, and a large gaggle of newspapers across the state have also supported it.  They even got a former Pittsburgh Steeler to testify for it.


In Arizona – long known for clean elections – there is bipartisan support for a constitutional amendment called Make Elections Fair Arizona, which they’re working to place on the November ballot.  It would give the state one nonpartisan primary for all voters. For the general election, it says that no more than five candidates can advance, and if there are at least three candidates, voters must use ranked-choice voting to ensure that the winner has a majority of voters’ support. GOP lawmakers don’t like it, naturally.  They want amendments on the ballot to put partisan primaries in, and prohibit ranked choice voting, in the state constitution.


Nevada is one of those states with the annoying rule that a constitutional amendment must pass TWICE through two different legislative sessions.  They passed it the first time in 2023. If voters approve the ballot measure again in 2024, the state’s constitution will require a single open primary for all candidates for federal, statewide and legislative offices, and ranked-choice voting in general elections to determine the winner.


Oregon and Ohio


Advocates in Oregon are gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot. It would change from a closed primaries to nonpartisan primaries in nearly all elections, but not the Presidential primaries.  This one sounds like a bit of a long shot, but I hope it happens.  Meanwhile, Ohio is the only state looking to go in the opposite direction.  They want to make their primaries more restrictive, forcing voters to register with a party as far in advance as the year before an election.   We had this in New York until recently, and it disenfranchised a lot of people.


Idaho


I saved the best for last. Idahoans for Open Primaries is well on its way to getting a measure on the November ballot in the state.  It would create a nonpartisan primary for voters in the state and institute ranked-choice voting in general elections. 


The Mountain West and Plains states, as you may know, look like a sea of red on the map.  A small number of far-right voters have had outsized power to elect their lawmakers in the region. If this happens, it could be the start of blowing the whole region wide open for Democrats and progressives.  


How could this help progressives?


Instead of just competing with mainstream Democrats in a primary, we could go out and get independent voters to side with us against them.  They are not all progressive by any means, but they ARE fed up with the two parties, and that’s an opportunity. 


One hopes that with the party label rendered less important, candidates would have to compete more on the basis of their record and their positions on the issues.  That would certainly help us, since our signature issues are popular.


It would also potentially blow gerrymandering to smithereens, or at least weaken it. If independents are part of the equation in the primary, the general election could include candidates who have broader appeal (I don’t want to say “more moderate”) than those who would win a closed primary in a district drawn considering largely, or only, Democrats or Republicans.

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