Monday, June 25, 2012

The case against mandatory open primaries

Writing as part of a Slate series on proposed constitutional amendments, David S. Law is advocating mandatory open party primary elections. Specifically, his amendment would state:
No person shall be denied the opportunity to vote in a primary election for the office of Senator, Representative, President, or Vice-President, on account of his or her party affiliation or lack thereof.
He proposes this as a remedy to the problem of excessive party polarization, the logic being that more moderate, independent voters in primaries would tend to produce more moderate elected officials.

I believe such an amendment would be a mistake. I'm actually writing a chapter on this topic right now for CQ's Debating Reform series, so I don't want to give away the store, but I'll provide the basic details of my argument. Mandated open primaries are a bad idea because 1) there's little evidence they would actually reduce partisanship; 2) if they somehow did reduce partisanship, that would actually hurt our political system; and 3) open primaries are fundamentally unfair to those who provide the real labor of parties. I'll deal with these one at a time.

Open primaries don't reduce partisanship
In a study I conducted with Nolan McCarty, Eric McGhee, Steve Rogers, and Boris Shor, we examined the roll call voting behavior of state legislators all across the country over the past two decades based on the openness of their primary election rules. We found no consistent effect of primary rules on legislative partisanship; legislators in open primary states appeared no more or less partisan than those in closed primary states. We even looked at those states (California, Washington, and Alaska) that had blanket primaries (voters can choose among candidates of all parties for any given office) that were forced to change their systems when the blanket primary was ruled unconstitutional. California's legislators only became slightly more polarized; there was no effect in Washington or Alaska.

Why would the primary rules have no effect on partisanship? Well, for one thing, unaffiliated voters tend not to show up for primary elections anyway, even if the rules permit them to participate. For another, party elites have proven very adept at securing the nominations of candidates they like through their allocation of vital campaign resources like endorsements, money, and expertise. They can make sure that a moderate has little chance of winning a primary, even if moderate voters show up to vote.

Now, could a shift in primary rules reduce the partisanship of elected officials? Possibly. Nebraska and Louisiana use a top-two style primary, in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, go to a runoff election, and both of those states have relatively low levels of partisanship (although it's hard to say just how much the top-two system is responsible for that). California just had its first experiment with such a primary, and while the initial results were unimpressively different from the past, it is still early to know what kind of effect the system will have on legislative partisanship.

Reduced partisanship has bad consequences
Strong partisanship is admittedly frustrating. But if we could reduce the partisanship of elected officials, would that be a good thing? Not necessarily. Parties do a lot of the important work of a representative democracy for us. Notably, they give voters a opening to weigh in. Most voters have little idea what individual members of a legislature are doing from day to day, but they can evaluate the performance of the majority party, and if they don't like the way things are going, they can vote in a new party. This kind of partisanship brings some accountability to the system. Legislatures with weak or nonexistent parties are often quite collegial, but they do not produce obviously better laws, and they want for accountability and may be more prone to corruption.

Open primaries are unfair
To whom do the primaries belong? Does an independent voter – one who has declined to claim membership in an organized party – have a “right” to pick that party’s nominees? If we were to insist that all states have open primaries, we would be telling all those who have worked for a party, donated to that party, and loyally voted with that party that they have no more claim to picking that party’s nominees than a first-time unaffiliated voter who has no ties to that party at all. Is this right?

Nancy Rosenblum wrote about this debate extensively in her wonderful book On the Side of the Angels. As she notes, our political discourse tends to privilege the independent or unaffiliated voter. Witness, for example, the presidential debates and voter forums to which only independent voters are invited; voters who have made a decision early are deemed to have insufficient standing to participate. But why, in the case of primaries, should the “right” of the independent to participate trump the “right” of the loyal partisan to determine her party’s nominees?

So, to sum up, open primaries don't really do what reforms promise they'll do, it would be bad if they actually did, and they're unfair regardless. Sorry to get all normative.


  1. What I find amazing about these arguments is the persistent myth of the moderate, engaged Independent who is only restrained from participating by the apparently impassable hurdle of party registration.

    The missing elements, of course, are:

    1) Evidence that those who are registered to vote but not registered with a party are more moderate?

    2) Evidence that Independents are highly politically engaged but only dissuaded by primaries?

    I've argued against open primaries but expressed a willingness to support what is sometimes called a "Montana" primary, where "registration" involves nothing more than picking up a party ballot at the polling place, but you needn't change your registration record.

    One last thing you don't note--lots of choices and lots of choosers increases the probability of a perverse result. That's basic rational choice which is sometimes hard to explain, but one way I've conveyed it is this: if you have lots of moderate candidates and wingnuts with devoted followers, who do you think is more likely to survive open primaries? Go ask David Duke, Jean Marie Le Pen, or Albert Fujimori, among others.

    1. Good point about perverse results. We saw that in one California district this year, where the top-two system resulted in two Republicans going to a runoff in a Democratic-leaning House district.

  2. Thank you for this article. I live in Pennsylvania where we have a closed primary, and after experiencing other systems as a campaign operative, I've found the closed primary to make the most sense.

    There is a difference between partisanship and strong political parties. The former divides people but the latter is a moderating factor. It's ironic, but parties aren't especially ideological at least compared to issue advocacy and broad based progressive or conservative PACs that might recruit candidates. While they are interested in running candidates who would be the standard bearer for whatever cause, political parties are much more apt to consider the electability of the candidate.

    Perhaps it's just me, but structurally closed primaries make more sense. Open primaries upends a very logical process where the party chooses it's nominee in the primary and then there is a general election where everyone weighs in. In the open primary system, primaries are more akin to two parallel general elections and the general election is the runoff election from the parallel general elections.

  3. What is missing from this issue as presentented, is the concept of choicing the candidate not a party. An open voting system with all candidates on one ballot will only work when ALL candidates are giving an equal path to getting on the ballot.

  4. I find it absolutely fascinating that candidates for the most significant leadership posts in the country now via the post 1968 "Open Primary" reforms essentially self-nominate, self-finance and self promote their candidacy through the primaries. This is the equivalent to allowing anyone with an interest nominate themselves for a leadership position in a corporation and letting the corporations customers vote a selection. Nowhere else in the world is this doe and it explains the misfits currently in major roles.