The Primary Problem With Primaries

PHOTO COURTESY OF FORTUNE.COM  More states need to open their primaries, asserts Kelly Coons ’22.


More states need to open their primaries, asserts Kelly Coons ’22.

Kelly Coons ‘22 | Assistant Opinions Editor

‘Tis the season—the season of politics.

The Cook Political Report predicts that $2.4 billion will be spent on local broadcast campaign advertisements this election cycle. That means you’re going to be seeing a lot of political advertisements, whether you like it or not. Regardless of how you feel about the season of politics, however, an important race has already come and gone: state primaries.

Primary elections decide the candidate on each party’s ballot. These are heavily-contested races that often set the tone for the “one Democrat vs. one Republican, with occasional third party candidates” races that we all know… and have opinions about.

Unfortunately, in most states, these primaries are an exclusive affair. The National Conference of State Legislatures breaks down the types of primaries by state. Nine states have “closed” primaries. Closed primaries require that each voter be registered with a political party, most often Democrat or Republican, and that these voters only vote in their party’s primary. Independent or unaffiliated voters are, by definition, excluded. Seven states have “partially closed” primaries, which allow political parties to choose whether or not to permit unaffiliated or voters from other parties to participate on an annual basis. Six states have “partially open” primaries, where voters are allowed to vote across party lines but must either publicly declare their choice on the ballot or risk having their choice used as a form of registration with the corresponding party. Nine states, including Massachusetts, have primaries which are “open to unaffiliated voters”. In these primaries, only unaffiliated voters are allowed to participate in any party primary they choose, while voters who are registered with one party cannot vote in another party’s primary. An unaffiliated voter’s choice is public information, but it does not change their party status.

Only 15 states have truly open primaries. In general, these states do not ask voters to choose a party on the voter registration form. Voters choose which primary to vote in privately. This way, even someone who identifies as a Republican can vote in the Democratic primary and vice versa. According to data compiled by the Huffington Post, as of Dec. 6, 2017, 19 of the 32 party registration regions are at least one-fourth constituted by unaffiliated voters. One reason for the abolishing of primaries is that they promote views on the extremes of the political spectrum. “Primary elections have turned out to be one of the causes that contribute to the extreme polarization of politics today,” says NYU Constitutional Law Professor Richard Phildes. “The people who show up for primary elections tend to be much more extreme, much more the activist wings of the political parties.”  Because primary elections are such an ingrained part of the political system, it is highly unlikely that they will be eliminated any time soon, but one way to make the primary election crowd more similar to the general election crowd – a discrepancy that many experts in the field of politics have concluded fuels partisanship – is to make primary elections as accessible as possible.

The interesting thing is: Candidates on either extreme of the political spectrum, who are naturally fostered by more closed primaries, tend to lose in the general elections. Research by Andrew Hall and Daniel Thompson of Stanford University suggests that these candidates lose because they boost the other party’s turnout.

This makes sense: If you’re a far-right or far-left voter, you don’t care as much if a center-right or center-left, respectively, wins versus a far-left or far-right candidate from an opposing party. Thus, even if you identify with far-left or far-right positions, it is worthwhile to support moderates, for as a result of their less “offensive” opinions, they are often the linchpins of monumental decisions (see Senator Susan Collins, considered by the New York Times to be  the Senate’s most moderate Republican, voting against the American Health Care Act of 2017, or “Trumpcare”).

So, open the primaries. Open them not only to the voters who have been unable to vote in primaries in the past, but to the leagues of new voters this season — yours truly among them.