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Electoral Reforms: Would Open Primaries Favor More Moderate Candidates? – BCB #17
"Should a party be beholden to its members, or to everyone?"
What if Blue voters and independents could vote on which Red politicians appear on the ballot, and vice versa? That’s the core idea of an open primary election. Because candidates would have to appeal to everyone to make it onto the ballot, not just their own party, this might give more moderate politicians a better chance.
The way that major party candidates are currently nominated is something of a historical accident, a hodge-podge of rules and traditions. In 21 states at least one party holds an open primary, meaning that there are 39 states where primaries are fully closed. Reformers see this as an opportunity.
Here’s the logic: open primaries allow voters to choose candidates who personally represent their views, even at the expense of party ideology. This means that Democrats can vote for a moderate Republican candidate, and similarly for Republican voters. This may make candidates of both parties more representative of voters' overall views.
Open primaries also allow people who are not registered to either political party to vote. Since about 40% of the population is “independent” in this way, this could encourage much broader participation in choosing candidates. In Florida, 3.2 million voters were barred from voting in the 2016 presidential primary because they were not registered to a major political party, leaving a large part of the voter base disenfranchised. A more inclusive political system may very well be one that is less polarizing.
However, the benefits of open primaries rest upon somewhat naive assumptions, empirical evidence is mixed, and open primaries are not without detractors.
The proponents of open primaries assume that independent voters are more moderate, which is not necessarily true. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attracted plenty of independent voters in states where the primaries were open. Furthermore, voters might not be particularly sensitive to the ideological extremity of a candidate; a study of California’s 2012 election found that voters often do not evaluate the ideological positions of candidates with any reasonable accuracy – or at all.
There’s an even more fundamental reason why several states, especially Red states, still prefer closed primaries: they preserve the ability of a political party to choose candidates. While it may be considered a victory to win the majority of independent voters, those most dedicated to a party’s central tenets lose their voting power.
More On That
There’s nothing in the Constitution about how parties must select candidates. This podcast recounts the history of our strange patchwork of state primary elections, tracing much of their rigidity to the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention.
This study of state elections from 1988-2000 found that open primaries favored more moderate, younger candidates who were more representative of voters’ views. It’s old, but seems to be the best evidence we have that open primaries could be depolarizing.
On the other hand, maybe the type of primary doesn’t matter. “We find no evidence that the restrictiveness of primary participation rules is systematically associated with candidate ideology.”
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New And Interesting
A 25-year-old YouTuber has gathered a massive audience by providing on-the-ground interviews with participants in unusual events – everything from a strongman competition to January 6th. His openness to just about any opinion has created an unlikely home for the politically unaffiliated: “I pretty much create news content for the disengaged.”
“Again and again, I find myself working with people who are exhausted by hatred and division. If they could find a dignified way out of conflict, they would take it. But often that door is closed because each side cannot bring itself to treat the other side with dignity.“
Polarization is allowing young primary challengers to knock out older incumbents who are fighting one another. Recent redistricting is playing a role as well.
Quote of the Week
I think the primary system is broken, but not because of ideological extremism. I think our system of democratic responsiveness is broken. Voters are becoming increasingly dissatisfied and drawn to anti-system alternatives because their needs are not being met.