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A Good Alternative to Closed Primaries? Myths and Facts about Open Primaries

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of open primaries with its decision in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party. Since then, open primaries have gained popularity with few comprehending whether the system is beneficial for democratic elections and its ramifications.Now, the idea has reached Connecticut. Two bills proposed earlier in this session — H.B. 6248 and S.B. 386 — would have allowed for open primaries. But what exactly does ‘open primary’ mean and what are the arguments for and against it?Like our ranked choice voting brief, Yankee Institute is analyzing the variations of open primaries, the facts and myths proponents and opponents state, and its consequences if Connecticut were to adopt the method.What are Open Primaries? In an open primary, voters of any affiliation may vote in the primary of any party. For example, a registered Democrat can vote for a Republican candidate in the Republican primary. However, they cannot vote in more than one party’s primary.Open primaries stand in contrast to closed primaries. Under the closed primary system, which is current practice in Connecticut, a voter must affiliate formally with a political party in advance of the election date to participate in that party’s primary. Currently, there are 15 states that have open primaries.

Variations of Open PrimariesOpen to Unaffiliated VotersThough not all ‘open primaries’ are created equal, as there a several variations. Some states allow only unaffiliated voters to participate in any party primary they choose, but do not allow voters who are registered with one party to vote in another party’s primary. For example, a Republican cannot cross over and vote in a Democrat primary, or vice versa.Below are states that employ this variation:

  Top-Two and Top-Four Primaries The top-two system is used for all primaries in Washington and California except when choosing presidential candidates. Alaska began using a top-four primary system in the 2022 Alaska’s at-large congressional district special election. In this system, the top two (or top four) vote-receivers in each race, regardless of party, advance to the general election. This can sometimes result in two candidates from the same party facing off against each other.  Myths and Facts about Open PrimariesIn theory, open primaries sound like an excellent way to increase voter turnout and minimize disenfranchisement and extreme candidates, and overall promote the democratic values of the U.S. electoral process. One benefit of this election system is that it eliminates the state conducting primaries for the major parties to choose general election candidates. It’s easy to implement because there is one common ballot, which can save both time and money. However, it’s also important to recognize that ease of open primaries can come with costs.Myth: Open primaries help prevent disenfranchisement of non-party members. Proponents of open primaries claim that closed primaries disenfranchise many Americans by excluding independent and unaffiliated voters. As of now, roughly 50% of the voting population is unaffiliated. As this population continues to grow, there is concern that voters won’t have as great of a voice in who gets elected, and will be effectively disenfranchised. This sounds valid but ignores the fact that no eligible voter is ever barred from participating in the primary election process.   Fact: Open primaries do not necessarily contribute to disenfranchisement — eligible voters are never barred from joining a political party or voting in the general election. It is indisputable that everyone has the right to vote in a general election regardless of affiliation. This right, however, does not extend to who votes in a primary. A political party can decide who can vote in its primary. But joining one is easy — often only requiring that a prospective member checks a box on a registration form. Moreover, they do not require membership dues or loyalty oaths, so a voter can still maintain his or her independence of thought.Given the ease and accessibility of joining a political party, it is difficult to argue that closed primaries disenfranchise voters, and that open primaries would be superior in this regard.  Myth: Open primaries lead to more moderate candidates and less polarization.  The argument goes as follows: since closed primaries are only open to one party, candidates in these contests should be encouraged to appeal to the more ideologically extreme. Independent voters who want a more moderate candidate are prevented from participating. Allowing independents to vote will force candidates to consider them and, thus, promote more moderate politics in general.  Fact: The type of primary has little to no impact on how moderate the candidates are.  Political scientist Seth Masket and a group of other election experts tested this assumption by looking at two decades of voting behavior by state legislators across all 50 states. What they discovered is that legislators elected from closed primary systems are no more or less extreme than those from open primary systems, writing, “We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremism of the politicians it produces.” In an article for the Pacific Standard, Masket reiterated his test’s conclusion examining California during the 1990s. He noted there were a few, minimal effects with an open primary system that may have moderated legislators, but the vast evidence points to no effect at all.Masket also concluded that parties are “pretty good” at choosing candidates “they prefer,” adding that “even if independents are allowed to participate in primaries, that does not mean they will. People unaffiliated with a party tend, on average, to be less interested in politics and less likely to vote.” Myth: Open primaries don’t result in the dilution of the nominating process.  Supporters of open primaries downplay the occurrence of diluting the nominating process, often remarking that it is such an anomaly that it does not need to be seriously considered.  Fact: Open primaries allow non-party members to misrepresent the party’s nomination.  Since independents can vote for either party in open primaries, the end result may not accurately represent the views of party members. This can lead to a nominated candidate who does not represent most party members. For example, in the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primaries, Mitt Romney won among registered Republicans, but John McCain won overall. Similarly, in South Carolina, Mike Huckabee won among Republicans, but McCain won the state. This demonstrates how in major elections open primaries can distort the will of actual party members.Closing Thoughts  American politics has a strong history and tradition of the power and autonomy of political parties to elect their own candidates with minimal interference. Requiring that someone be a party member to vote in a primary is not disenfranchisement — it is freedom of association. As previously stated, open primaries have little, to no, impact on selecting more moderate candidates, while closed primaries most accurately reflect the will of the party members in whom they want to represent them in a general election. Therefore, the consequence to Connecticut voters is that, if they are affiliated with a party, their voice would be diluted by outsiders looking to sink or raise certain candidates that don’t believe in the party’s values. Put in another way, Democrats can troll Republicans and/or Republicans can troll Democrats by distorting the vote. The primary would be weaponized.The question we should ask is why? Why offer open primaries as a solution to a non-issue in the state’s electoral process? That remains to be seen, but, for now, Connecticut should stay true to the old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  `

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