Olympia's Blog

More Open Primaries: An Idea Whose Time Has Clearly Arrived

June 21, 2016

Everywhere I go, people continue to ask me what can be done to help ratchet back the political polarization and elect more candidates willing to reach across the aisle to get things done.

Today, the American people’s faith in politics is stunningly low. One recent poll conducted by AP and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that a scant 13 percent of Americans are proud of the 2016 election, 55 percent feel helpless, and only 10 percent have a great deal of confidence in the overall political system.

Those are alarming numbers.

As I have said and written many times in the past, there are no magic wands. However, there are measures we could take to improve the system. One recommendation I continue to believe is important, which I had in my book and was echoed by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform (CPR) which I co-chair, is more open primaries for congressional races.

Closed primaries can produce more staunchly ideological candidates who do not reflect the true depth and breadth of the American voter. Allowing Independents, the unenrolled, and members of the opposite party to cast ballots in a primary would help to elect candidates that are more representative of the electorate at large.

Here’s an example of the ideological make-up of primary participants: According to a 2014 Washington Post article, about 43 percent of Republicans who have a “very unfavorable” view of the Democratic Party say they always vote in primaries, compared with 27 percent of those with less negative views. For Democrats, 33 percent of those with “deeply negative” views of Republicans say they always participate versus 21% with less negative views.

Similarly, 54 percent of “consistent conservatives” and 34 percent of “consistent liberals” say they always vote in primaries, while just 18 percent of those with a “roughly even mix of liberal and conservative views” vote in primaries.

As they concluded: “Because political participation and activism are so much higher among the more ideologically polarized elements of the population, these voices are over-represented in the political process…Nationwide, 21 percent are either consistently liberal or consistently conservative in their political views. But those people make up a larger share of the electorate…34 percent of those who always vote in primaries.”

So our primaries have come to play an outsized and disproportionate role, as candidates appeal to the hard, ideological portion of the party’s base to secure victory in the primary, rather than a wider range of primary and general election voters. Consider the state of New York: only 19.7 percent of the electorate (about 2.3 million voters out of approximately 11.7 million registered) — cast a ballot!

The Commission on Political Reform believes that increasing participation in party primaries is both good for the parties, as it is essential they be more inclusive and willing to seek and engage a broader range of the electorate – and good for the country.

As we concluded, states and political parties must strive to dramatically bolster the number of voters who cast ballots in congressional primaries: to 30 percent by 2020, and 35 percent by 2026. More open primaries would help achieve that goal. Currently, less than half of the states (20) have some form of an open primary.

We cannot continue to allow a small minority of voters to ultimately determine who represents us in the United States House and Senate. In the Commission’s view as well as my own, higher participation in primaries would mean a primary election that more likely resemble the overall population. Not to mention, isn’t participation in our elections fundamental to a healthy democracy? And right now, Americans believe it can use all the boost it can get.

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Olympia's Blog

More Open Primaries: An Idea Whose Time Has Clearly Arrived

June 21, 2016

Everywhere I go, people continue to ask me what can be done to help ratchet back the political polarization and elect more candidates willing to reach across the aisle to get things done.

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