There is a growing clamor for “open” primaries which permits voters of all parties, or no affiliation, to vote for a candidate before the general election. There is a “top two” component to open primaries: candidates for a given office, regardless of party line, appear on the same ballot, but only the two with the highest vote totals proceed to the November election.
A top two primary distorts the meaning of a free and fair election. For example, three Democrats and two Republicans ran in the 2014 Washington state open primary for Treasurer. Even though 52 percent of the electorate voted for one of the three Democrats, two Republicans ended up on the general election ballot because they narrowly finished first and second. Democrats were disenfranchised. (And please note: Washington had not elected a Republican as Treasurer since 1952.)
In 2016, as a result from an open/top two primary system, seven of California’s 53 U.S. House contests offered voters a one party choice; five of 20 state Senate contests and 15 of 80 state Assembly races had two members of the same party running against each other.
California’s 2016 primary for U.S. Senate resulted in liberal Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez the only candidates facing off in the November election. This was the first time since 1914, when direct election of U.S. Senators began, that a Republican candidate was not on the ballot in the general election. Among Californians who cast a ballot last year, 16 percent left U.S. Senate choice blank – the worst fall-off for a California U.S. Senate election in 75 years.
Maine’s League of Women Voters testified against a proposed open/top two primary in that state, arguing that the system “would end the practice of independent candidates accessing the general election ballot by petition. Instead, the only way to access the general election ballot would be by finishing first or second in a primary election on which all candidates for the office appear.”
When states adopt an open primary structure, it gives independent and third party candidates less time to campaign, recruit volunteers, and raise money to make their case. They are marginalized by the political duopoly.
From 1992 to 2010, California’s Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, Green, and American Independent parties averaged 127 primary ballot candidates each election year. In 2012, the first year of its open primary method of voting, just 17 candidates from minor parties qualified for state legislative and congressional races. In 2016, there were only nine minor party candidates for seats in the state legislature (100), Congress (53), and the U.S. Senate.
Advocates of open primaries claim it motivates voters to support the person and not the party. However, in a top two primary, well-oiled political machines ensure that better-known and deep-pocketed candidates shoot to the top; underfunded Democrats and Republicans trail behind – independent and third-party candidates are left in the dust.
And for those concerned with the integrity of the voting process, open primaries can result in nominees outside the core beliefs of political parties due to crossover votes. In the 2012 Michigan GOP primary for President, Democratic strategist Joe DiSano ran a “strategic voting” campaign. DiSano’s operatives targeted 50,000 Democratic voters through email and robo-calls asking them to cast their ballots for Rick Santorum in attempt to hurt likely nominee Romney. “Democrats can get in there and cause havoc for Romney all the way to the Republican convention,” DiSano bragged to CNN.
The nation’s leading expert on ballot access law, Richard Winger, founder of BallotAccessNews.com, describes how top-two elections bar voter choices and new ideas from the political arena: “There have been 119 instances when a member of a party other than the Republican and Democratic Parties ran for federal or state office in a top-two system, and in which there were at least two major party members running. In all 119 instances, the minor party candidate did not place first or second and thus could not run in the general election.” Minor party challengers to the establishment candidates, whether they draw two or 20 percent of the vote — or have a chance to win — deserve to play on a large and level field in November.
Voter apathy impacts turnout, and a poor showing at the polls is often used as a reason for a top two primary. Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, asserts, “Every election is determined by the people who show up.” So, why are voters staying home? Recent Gallup polling revealed a 67 percent disapproval rating of the way Congress works (a CNN survey has that number at 69 percent.) That is not the fault of the primary system or voters: Republicans and Democrats rarely offer anything more than one-dimensional candidates.
In primaries based on partisan affiliation, voters who have a vested interest in a political party choose the nominees. Then, in the general election, Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third party constituencies are free to vote their conscience. Even if their candidate cannot win, voters can comfortably support the office-seeker who most closely reflects their opinions. Limiting the choice in the general election to just two candidates, sometimes representing the same party, is hardly an inspiration for a larger voter turnout.
An open primary does not entice more voters to participate in elections. To refill ballot boxes, it will take more and better candidates. Voters and candidates deserve a free market on Election Day.