Partisanship & Primaries: Open, Closed, and In-Between

Woman walking into polling placeIn some states, voters must register with a political party to participate in primary elections. Does this system make partisanship worse? Can more open primaries choose candidates who are willing to find common ground?

February 16, 2020

More than 200 years after George Washington warned Americans to avoid “the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” political parties in many states still decide how primary elections are structured and who can participate in them. If you live in New York, Florida, or one of seven other states, you’ll need to register with a party in order to vote in state, local, and Congressional primaries. Independents have to wait until the general election to have their say.

Other states, however, open their primaries to more voters, with the rules for who can vote varying widely across the country. Parties may have lots of power or very little. Independents may be shut out completely or participate alongside their party-affiliated neighbors. What kinds of primary election systems do states use, and is one of them better than the rest?

State of Confusion
The National Council of State Legislatures managed to squeeze 48 out of 50 state primary rules into the following six categories (two states apparently defy categorization).  You can see here which set of rules apply in your state. Also note: these categories apply to state, local, and Congressional elections. For presidential elections, many states have yet another set of rules.

Closed: A voter must be registered with a party to participate and can only vote in that party’s primary. Independent voters cannot participate.

Partially Closed: Parties can decide whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate. This somewhat opens primary elections to more voters, but also creates year-to-year uncertainty about who can vote in which elections.

Partially Open: Voters are free to cross party lines, but they must either publicly declare their ballot choice or their ballot selection may be regarded as a form of registration with the corresponding party. This system allows more choice for voters, but can be confusing.

Open to Unaffiliated Voters: Unaffiliated (i.e. independent) voters can participate in any party’s primary. In this system, voters who are registered with a party must stick to that party’s primary.

Open: A voter can participate in any party’s primary. This system allows independent voters to participate, as well as party-affiliated voters who aren’t enthusiastic about their party’s candidates.

Top-Two: Candidates from all parties appear on one ballot. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election. This system allows voters from all parties, as well as independents, to vote for a candidate from any party. It can also result in two candidates from the same party facing off in the general election.

Can More Open Primaries Decrease Partisanship?
Opponents of closed primaries say they unfairly shut out independent voters and produce ideologically extreme candidates. Opening up our primaries, they argue, will force candidates to appeal to more voters, in turn electing less extreme representatives and depolarizing our politics. Writing in support of open primaries, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger argues that “our political system is not designed for the voter who likes ideas from both parties; it is designed for hardcore activists on the right and left.” When California began considering its top-two primary system, Schwarzenegger was a strong proponent.

Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst, says that open primaries succeed in moderating partisan politics. One journalist summarizes Skelley’s views as follows: “the effect of open primaries, especially in competitive races, has been to strengthen the state’s political independents and dilute the influence of partisan ideologues. It’s no accident that states with open primaries often nominate more temperate politicians than those with closed primaries.”

Not everyone agrees. Marc Meredith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says research shows that closed primaries aren’t responsible for the bulk of our political polarization, so open primaries won’t make much of a difference. While bringing independent voters into the primary fold may seem like it would moderate candidates, there’s a hitch: independent voters aren’t all that independent. In fact, research shows that the vast majority of independents lean toward one of the major parties and identify as independents because they dislike their choice of candidates or the parties themselves. That suggests that independents wouldn’t necessarily move the needle in an open primary.

Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, argues  in favor of closed primaries on different grounds. His reasoning is that choosing candidates is the most important decision a party can make, and it therefore should be made by party members. “If you want to participate in a party’s primary, you should at the very least be a member. Allowing Independents and Republicans to select the Democrats’ next nominees, or some other combination, is a good way to destroy a party and its meaning.”

Finally, apart from the differences in primary systems, some municipalities are experimenting with alternatives to “winner take all” voting methods.  In a prior issue of Wide Angle we examined ranked choice voting in detail. Also known as instant-runoff voting, it allows voters to choose more than one candidate in order of preference, so they can vote for the candidate they truly favor without fear of “wasting” their vote.  Ranked choice voting is slowly gaining traction in cities across the country. Maine, which opens primary elections to unaffiliated voters, has implemented ranked choice voting as well.

Can any of these models help elect candidates committed to working across party lines? With more than three-quarters of Americans saying that our partisan divisions are growing, any shift from partisanship to problem-solving would be welcome.

Learn More

Open Up: This essay by former Congressman Mickey Edwards is nearly a decade old but could have been written yesterday. Without changes to the way we elect candidates, Edwards writes, “American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.” – via The Atlantic

California Dreaming: A political scientist at the University of California San Diego says that California’s top-two primary system has failed to deliver on its promise of electing moderate candidates who appeal to a broad swath of voters – via The Conversation

Change of Heart: The former chairs of Pennsylvania’s Democratic and Republican parties say that as party bosses, they would have opposed open primaries. Now, both say they support opening up their state’s primaries as a way of encouraging voter turnout and making elections more competitive – via Pennsylvania Capital-Star

Who’s afraid of crossover voting? Political parties, for one. Alabama’s Secretary of State said 674 people had voted in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate then later voted in the Republican run-off, violating a state law prohibiting “crossover voting.” Most of the accusations of improper voting turned out to be errors, not fraud – via Associated Press

“Modest” Reforms: Political scientist Seth Masket is promoting different ideas to improve the presidential primary process.  Among his proposed changes: make primaries proportional rather than winner-take-all, and shift more power from voters to delegates – via Pacific Standard

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This article originally appeared in the February 16, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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