Now that the Primary Elections are over, it is time to close out the issue of Open Primaries for this year. To start with, the purpose of a primary election is not (as another columnist has claimed) to select party leaders; it is just to decide whose names will appear on the general election ballot in November. Here are four things to consider about Open Primaries.
First, although few actually vote there are many supporters of a party who must be allowed the opportunity to vote in their party’s primary election.
Second, there are hardline supporters of each party who state they would never vote in November for anybody running under the other party’s label. With Open Primaries, such people can vote in the opposite party’s primary election anyway, if only in an effort to game the system: vote for the weakest candidate in order to raise the chances that the voter’s “real” party will win in the general election.
Third, there are many others who normally support one party but might be disenchanted with their party’s nominees this time around. Let’s say they are particularly intrigued by Candidate X from the other party and want to vote for him or her in the primary. They would vote for that party’s nominee in November only if it end up being Candidate X; otherwise, they will vote for their usual party’s candidate.
Fourth, there are many politically independent voters who pay the taxes that support primary voting. Only Open Primaries enable them to have a voice in deciding who will be on the November ballot.
The problem with Open Primaries is that it is impossible to sort out which of the four categories a voter falls into. Requiring party registration in advance of any election is legally possible as a means to restrict voting in party primaries to those in the first category and eliminate insincere voting by those in the second; the downside is that it would also eliminate sincere voting by those from the last two.
A fallacy about political parties is this: whoever wins a party’s nomination is then obligated to follow every single plank of that party’s platform. If that were true, it wouldn’t matter very much whose names actually ended up on November’s ballot; only their party affiliation would matter. But that’s not how it works. In contested primary elections, candidates intentionally take political stances that distinguish their own candidacy from their same-party rivals. Unless those differences are only about trivia (which I’m sure no candidate would admit), it does matter which one gains his/her party’s nomination – because one candidate would emphasize some parts of their party’s platform and perhaps even oppose other parts, while their rivals would likely do the same but with the parts changed or even reversed. Hence, choosing among them to see which one ends up on the November ballot makes sense to those voters in the first as well as in the last two categories above.
Open primaries enable the largest number of citizens to vote their conscience. They increase the likelihood that the eventual winners truly represent the preferences of the largest number of voters, including Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. In making decisions about who can vote in a representative democracy like ours, it is always better to err on the side of increasing rather than on the side of decreasing the number of voters. Make plans now to vote in November!