Reforming our primary system?

 

Last night, I attended a dinner in New York City hosted by the Hoover Institution. At the dinner, two Hoover scholars, David Brady and Douglas Rivers, delivered a presentation on the state of the electorate, focusing particularly on the all-important independent voters.

At some point during the Q&A, Brady spoke at length about the dilemma that primaries present for political parties. This is a familiar topic which we here at Ricochet have discussed: during a primary, where only registered members of the party vote, the party candidates take a hard turn to the right–if Republican–or to the left–if Democrat. Then, in the general election, the emerging candidate, who is likely to be pretty conservative or pretty liberal, suddenly has to appeal to a more general audience. He has to appeal to independent voters. To Brady, this primary system betrayed the GOP in Delaware when it nominated Christine O’Donnell for the Senate seat. O’Donnell, Brady thinks, has no chance of winning.

Brady presented a solution to the primary problem–he said if he could change one thing about the electoral system, this would be it: have open primaries, as California and several other states do. In an open primary, anyone can vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. Most states have closed primaries. Here’s California’s Secretary of State on the difference between open versus closed primaries.

Closed Primary SystemA “closed” primary system governed California’s primary elections until 1996. In a closed primary, only persons who are registered members of a political party may vote the ballot of that political party.

Open Primary SystemThe provisions of the “closed” primary system were amended by the adoption of Proposition 198, an initiative statute approved by the voters at the March 26, 1996, Primary Election. Proposition 198 changed the closed primary system to what is known as a “blanket” or “open” primary, in which all registered voters may vote for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation and without a declaration of political faith or allegiance.

So with an open primary, the argument goes, since everyone–not just party members–are voting, then a more moderate candidate will win the party nomination and ultimately have a better chance at winning the general election. Would an open primary have served the GOP better in Delaware than a closed one?

There are 33 comments.

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  1. Michael Tee Inactive

    Bad idea. Don’t you remember “Operation Chaos?

    • #1
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:43 AM PDT
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  2. Mel Foil Inactive

    I think open primaries, with real opportunities for crossover mischief, are not the answer. The risks outweigh the benefits. The answer is to make the whole party process more welcoming, and simpler. You have to encourage as many people as possible to show up, but you also have to reward the ones that actually do show up. It’s a balance.

    • #2
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:48 AM PDT
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  3. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author

    Limbaugh’s motives aside, the ultimate effect of operation chaos was to tip the scales against the less moderate candidate (Obama) in favor of the more moderate candidate (Clinton), which in theory is a good thing, right?

    • #3
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:49 AM PDT
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  4. Mel Foil Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith: Limbaugh’s motives aside, the ultimate effect of operation chaos was to tip the scales against the less moderate candidate (Obama) in favor of the more moderate candidate (Clinton), which is a good thing. · Sep 17 at 6:49am

    But, as often as not, the effort is not to support some other strong candidate. It’s to support someone like Dennis Kucinich, hoping that they become the only alternative to your own party’s candidate in the general.

    • #4
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:55 AM PDT
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  5. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author
    etoiledunord: You have to encourage as many people as possible to show up. · Sep 17 at 6:48am

    But what about the independents? I think there are some real benefits–which could outweigh the risks–of involving independents in the primary process.

    Also, I know there is a risk of cross over voting, but everyone only has one vote, and I wonder if enough people will effectively give up their one vote by crossing over, rather than actually voting for their preferred candidate.

    • #5
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:56 AM PDT
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  6. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author
    etoiledunord
    Emily Esfahani Smith: Limbaugh’s motives aside, the ultimate effect of operation chaos was to tip the scales against the less moderate candidate (Obama) in favor of the more moderate candidate (Clinton), which is a good thing. · Sep 17 at 6:49am
    But, as often as not, the effort is not to support some other strong candidate. It’s to support someone like Dennis Kucinich, hoping that they become the only alternative to your own party’s candidate in the general. · Sep 17 at 6:55am

    But say operation chaos caused Clinton to win the primary and then, because it was a Democrat year, the general. Partisan politics aside, wouldn’t that have been a better outcome than Obama winning?

    • #6
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:58 AM PDT
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  7. Mel Foil Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith

    etoiledunord

    Emily Esfahani Smith:
    But, as often as not, the effort is not to support some other strong candidate. It’s to support someone like Dennis Kucinich, hoping that they become the only alternative to your own party’s candidate in the general. · Sep 17 at 6:55am
    But say operation chaos caused Clinton to win the primary and then, because it was a Democrat year, the general. Partisan politics aside, wouldn’t that have been a better outcome than Obama winning? · Sep 17 at 6:58am

    Can’t argue with that.

    • #7
    • September 17, 2010, at 6:59 AM PDT
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  8. Franco Member

    Rush’s Operation Chaos was motivated by Democrats voting for McCain, and playing other games, in open primaries.

    No, I don’t think it is a good idea all things considered. It is natural for a pol to appeal to his party (base), then he must live with his words in the general. What is wrong with that?

    Funny how the talk turns to changing the primary system when the establishment guy loses.

    • #8
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:26 AM PDT
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  9. Diane Ellis Contributor

    California has open primaries, but only as of this year. So we don’t know what effect they’ll have yet. I wrote a post back in May asking readers what they thought about open primaries and whether they were a step in the right direction. I received some pretty compelling arguments for why they’re a bad idea.

    • #9
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:30 AM PDT
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  10. Bill Waldron Inactive

    It is entirely possible that the GOP was served quite well in Delaware on Tuesday, whether many in the party establishment likes it or not. Time will tell.

    • #10
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:31 AM PDT
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  11. Jaydee_007 Inactive

    Hey, I have an idea.

    Lets change the rule in court too.

    Lets let either of the two attorneys argue either prosicution or defense any time they want. Let’s not have two committed attorneys, fully committed to their point of view, trying to convince the jury of either a) the defendant is guilty or b) the defendant is Not guilty.

    That way the friction in the courtroom could be moderated, less conflict is a good thing is it not?

    Gosh, we could turn criminal law into a round table discussion eventually.

    Luke Warm isn’t the answer.

    The Primary process wasn’t broken just because some sore loosers didn’t like the outcome, so don’t fix it.

    • #11
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:34 AM PDT
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  12. Aaron Miller Member

    I suspect that closed primary results have less to do with closed rules than that voters with bolder convictions are likely to be more involved in politics and participate in every political opportunity. Particularly in modern elections, I doubt many Independents feel as strongly about enacting their views as the voters who believe government is headed toward tyranny and ruin.

    Open or closed, primary results will not reflect the middle.

    • #12
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:39 AM PDT
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  13. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author
    Franco:

    Funny how the talk turns to changing the primary system when the establishment guy loses. · Sep 17 at 7:26

    I don’t think Brady was reacting to the “establishment” loss. I think he was more concerned with how to incorporate independent voters into the primary system–which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the GOP.

    • #13
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:44 AM PDT
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  14. River Inactive

    This seems to me like more tinkering around the edges, tuning the car instead of overhauling the engine – which is what we really need.

    California has two things I’ve seen promoted here as part of a solution: open primaries and term limits. Neither have stemmed the tide of ‘progressive’ statism, corruption, and civic bankruptcy.

    One salutary effect of a collapsing economy will be the raising of public interest. Voter apathy in this country and low voter turnout is killing us. People need to learn that they’re responsible members of a republic, and misery of a permanent nature is lurking around the corner if they don’t get off their duff!

    The Tea Party is our last, best hope to instill the passion for action in America.

    • #14
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:48 AM PDT
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  15. Bill Waldron Inactive

    But not necessarily good, either.

    Independents in states with closed primary systems make their own choice about whether or how to be included. Me? I’ve remained a registered Democrat, even though I haven’t voted D (in a national election) since I was *much* younger. I’ve found that typically I dislike a particular Democrat more that I like a particular Republican, so it generally suits me fine at primary time.

    Emily Esfahani Smith

    I think he was more concerned with how to incorporate independent voters into the primary system–which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the GOP. · Sep 17 at 7:44am

    • #15
    • September 17, 2010, at 7:59 AM PDT
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  16. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author
    Bill Waldron: Independents in states with closed primary systems make their own choice about whether or how to be included. Me? I’ve remained a registered Democrat, even though I haven’t voted D (in a national election) since I was *much* younger. I’ve found that typically I dislike a particular Democrat more that I like a particular Republican, so it generally suits me fine at primary time.
    Emily Esfahani Smith

    I think he was more concerned with how to incorporate independent voters into the primary system–which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the GOP. · Sep 17 at 7:44am

    Sep 17 at 7:59am

    But Bill, wouldn’t you still be able to exercise that same choice with an open primary system?

    • #16
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:04 AM PDT
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  17. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author
    Aaron Miller: I suspect that closed primary results have less to do with closed rules than that voters with bolder convictions are likely to be more involved in politics and participate in every political opportunity. Particularly in modern elections, I doubt many Independents feel as strongly about enacting their views as the voters who believe government is headed toward tyranny and ruin.

    Open or closed, primary results will not reflect the middle. · Sep 17 at 7:39am

    That’s a great point Aaron. I bet it also applies to people who are less discontent and more happy with their circumstances and with political life: they don’t feel the need to enact change by voting at the ballot box.

    • #17
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:10 AM PDT
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  18. Franco Member
    Emily Esfahani Smith

    Franco:

    Funny how the talk turns to changing the primary system when the establishment guy loses. · Sep 17 at 7:26

    I don’t think Brady was reacting to the “establishment” loss. I think he was more concerned with how to incorporate independent voters into the primary system–which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the GOP. · Sep 17 at 7:44am

    OK, but independents are a funny breed. Rob Long posted about them a few days back.and the thread didn’t hold much esteem for them. And independents should be, ahem, independent. Voting in a Dem or GOP open primary kinda negates their appelation doesnt it? Chasing after the independent vote as a block is like herding cats.

    The thing that really gets me ~ those so-called independents who say they lean right, or are “fiscal conservatives”, but then vote for some Marxist because he is pro-choice or for same sex marriage, as though these issues are really going to be decided by some Senator or podunk congressperson, while the Marxist pol has direct effect on Mr.Fiscal Conservative’s pocket, voting everyday to raid his earnings on behalf of some noble government need.

    • #18
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:11 AM PDT
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  19. Bill Waldron Inactive

    Fair point, Emily. Yes, I would. I do think, however, that the advantages of closed primaries outweigh the disadvantages — for reasons expressed by others above and in response to Diane’s earlier query.

    Emily Esfahani Smith
    Bill Waldron: Independents in states with closed primary systems make their own choice about whether or how to be included. Me? I’ve remained a registered Democrat, even though I haven’t voted D (in a national election) since I was *much* younger. I’ve found that typically I dislike a particular Democrat more that I like a particular Republican, so it generally suits me fine at primary time.

    Emily Esfahani Smith

    I think he was more concerned with how to incorporate independent voters into the primary system–which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the GOP. · Sep 17 at 7:44am

    Sep 17 at 7:59am
    But Bill, wouldn’t you still be able to exercise that same choice with an open primary system? · Sep 17 at 8:04am
    • #19
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:14 AM PDT
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  20. Profile Photo Member

    Until the passage of a recent initiative, California had a system in which you could register as unaffiliated and then vote either Dem or GOP. If you registered Dem or GOP, you had to vote accordingly. If you registered with some other party – Libertarian or Green or whatever, you were limited to voting in that primary.

    That still sounds pretty good to me.

    Open primaries in a few states helped to give us John McCain.

    That’s not so good.

    • #20
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:21 AM PDT
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  21. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author

    Franco — I agree with you. I consider myself a pragmatic libertarian. If I had to choose between a candidate who was more fiscally conservative and one who was more socially liberal, I would go with the fiscal conservative.

    • #21
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:28 AM PDT
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  22. Emily Esfahani Smith Inactive
    Emily Esfahani Smith Post author

    I like Tristan Abbey’s summation of the issue in Diane’s post from May:

    Pick your poison. Closed primaries give the party faithful the candidate that they want — and will want to campaign for. Open primaries can help centrist/moderate Republicans get nominated in a state where a conservative ideologue stands no chance statewide.

    Since we live in a centrist nation, I think that open primaries better reflect the national mood.

    Plus, I see it like this: when it comes to choosing between a hard-right and a moderate-right candidate, I would prefer the moderate, but (depending on the candidate), I wouldn’t see either as a necessarily BAD choice. In the decision between a moderate-left and a hard-left candidate, I definitely want the moderate-left one, and I think the hard-left candidate is a BAD choice. So of the three possibilities (hard right, moderate right, moderate left, hard left), I see one (hard left) as much more worse than the rest. In an open primary system, the possibility of getting that one bad option is less likely since an open primary yields more moderate results.

    • #22
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:29 AM PDT
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  23. Morituri Te Inactive

    What is the point of political parties, if their members can’t select candidates who subscribe to their ideologies and platforms? Open primaries reduce parties to little more than talking-shops.

    If there is such deep enthusiasm for moderate candidates, then why hasn’t someone formed the Moderate party, and run candidates under its banner? We have Greens, Socialist Workers, Libertarians, what have you, so you can’t argue that it’s hard to get on a state ballot.

    The democratic process is a sort of (ok, very) imperfect market in ideas. If there were really such interest in “mainstream”, “moderate” candidates, wouldn’t someone be offering that product in the democratic marketplace? Or is this just the political version of Michelle Obama’s obesity campaign? “I know you hate it, but it’s good for you!”

    • #23
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:38 AM PDT
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  24. Bill Waldron Inactive

    So candidates work to appear moderate until elected (e.g., the current occupant of the White House), or we get more philosophies like “compassionate conservatism.” I’m not convinced that’s a better path. I don’t think a lack of “moderate” candidates has been our problem; I’d rather see parties (and candidates) that openly and proudly reflect their philosophical differences, rather than playing to the middle.

    Emily Esfahani Smith: In an open primary system, the possibility of getting that one bad option is less likely since an open primary yields more moderate results. · Sep 17 at 8:29am
    • #24
    • September 17, 2010, at 8:40 AM PDT
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  25. Michael Tee Inactive

    This reeks of the Sore Loserman push for the elimination of the Electoral College.

    And, just as a point of order, aren’t most of us here conservatives? Here is a great article on making changes to the system without much reflection on the consequences of those changes.

    The primary system is over 100 years old. And tradition counts for something.

    • #25
    • September 17, 2010, at 9:05 AM PDT
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  26. Doctor Bass Monkey Inactive

    If someone wants to vote in a party primary, join the party. It seems absurd to me to ask a group of people to put forward a candidate then open it up to people not in that group.

    • #26
    • September 17, 2010, at 9:16 AM PDT
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  27. Humza Ahmad Member

    Ms. Smith, Independents have made their choice not to register with a party. That does not mean they can have their cake and eat it too. Without closed primaries, registering with a party becomes meaningless. Independents need not be considered in discussions of primary election reform because primaries are not meant to, nor do they necessarily, result in the most radical candidates; rather, they allow party members to choose their favored candidates to represent the party in the general election.

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    • September 18, 2010, at 1:31 AM PDT
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  28. heathermc Inactive

    The trouble with representative government and freedom of speech is that there will be confrontation and anger, because to many people, ideas matter. In London, in the Mother of Parliaments, there are red lines down the middle aisle between Govt and Opposition. They are more than 2 sword lengths apart.

    And what is so terrible about vociferous confrontation anyway? The Congress is set up to ensure that confrontation is limited to talking (no more taking your walking stick to your opponent; no calling your opponent a “liar”.)

    And I think many people are assuming O’Donnell will lose. Well (a) not many people thought a Republican would win Biden’s seat anyway; and (b) she won the nomination fair and square. Maybe, just maybe she will win.

    The Tea Party has arisen because there are a lot of very serious problems coming to fruition in the USA. There will, therefore, be lots of confrontation. May that confrontation remain at the debate level.

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    • September 18, 2010, at 1:45 AM PDT
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  29. Nick Stuart Inactive

    Illinois has an open primary system where you simply state which ballot you want when you go to the polls. Works OK here in Illinois where there’s really only one party any. John Kass calls it “The Combine,” I call it the “Where’s Mine” party.

    What I would like to see is reformation of how legislative districts are drawn. Here in Illinois the incumbent politicians choose their voters, not the other way around. That would be way more efficacious in assuring representative democracy than term limits.

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    • September 18, 2010, at 7:01 AM PDT
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  30. G.A. Dean Inactive

    As I remember the impulse behind the change in the California primary system, and its been changed and changed back more than once in the past 20 years, was to weaken the “party establishment”, similar to what drives the Tea Party. In the past the insiders and old boys had a lock on things, and people want to see more outsiders break into the mix.

    In the typical California election the most popular choice had been “none of the above”.

    In the 30 years that I’ve lived here the caucuses/conventions of both parties have been weakened, the primaries adjusted, the speaker’s office much weakened, and a great many important issues decided by voter proposition. This state had been run by a very small club, but it’s opening up slowly.

    And the term limits initiative had one purpose, to get rid of Willy Brown. It worked.

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    • September 18, 2010, at 8:16 AM PDT
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