Open primary in CA: adios, democracy

T.A. Barnhart

I have been unstinting in my criticism of “open primaries”. I voted against a Portland School District candidate because he had been endorsed by Phil Kiesling, who keeps trying to flog this anti-democratic idea in Portland. I have argued against “open primaries” (which can take various forms but all have the same outcomes) for two reasons: political parties should be free to select their nominees for public office without intrusion from non-members, and small “third” parties will be obliterated.

Sad to say, California is proving my point on the latter.

Here are the results of the special primary that was held Tuesday to replace retired Rep Jane Harman in Southern California’s CD 36:

Janice HahnD13,13724.66
Craig HueyR11,64821.87
Debra BowenD11,14421.48
Marcy WinogradD5,0669.51
Mike GinR4,1457.78
Mike WebbR3,1485.91
Patrick BobkoR1,9543.67
Steve CollettLib7381.39
Stephen EiselerR6601.24
Daniel H AdlerD2850.54
Loraine Goodwin D2600.49
Maria E MontanoPF2520.47
George NewberryR1980.37
Matthew RoozeeNP1320.25
Katherine PilotNP1080.20
Michael T ChamnessNP930.17

Total votes cast: 42,968
Registered voters: 345,232
Turnout: 12.45%

NP: No party preference
Lib: Libertarian
PF: Peace & Freedom

The first thing to note is that having an open primary did nothing to improve turnout. 12.45% is embarrassing. Granted, everyone hates Congress and we persist in holding elections on Tuesdays — and California makes most voters have to show up at a polling place, which we know suppresses turnout greatly — but fewer than 1-in-8 voters even bothered. Hahn is the winner of this vote — and she received votes from fewer than 4% of the registered voters.

Friends and neighbors, that is not democracy. That’s surrender.

The top six finishers received 40,242 of the 42,968 ballots cast. That’s 94% of the total votes cast. The top six, of course, are all Democrats and Republicans. Add in the other major party candidates, and you have 97% of the vote going to Ds & Rs.

Or 3% to small party candidates. Of course, it’s entirely possible that only 3% of the voters in California CD 36 would vote for a small “third” party candidate. But that’s pretty unlikely. According to the CA Secretary of State’s office, only 73% of voters in CD 36 are registered with the two major parties. Registration with minor parties is tiny (0.63% for Libertarians; 0.68% for the Greens) but “No Party Preference” is 22.27%. The indies voted for Ds and Rs; they had little other choice.

And while registration for third parties is low, turnout among those voters is higher than for the other parties. 18% of the Peace and Freedom Party and 33% of Libertarians voted. That indicates a stronger desire among their supporters to participate in the democratic process, but guess what?

You’re out. One and done. Thanks for playing, and have a safe drive home.

Yup, the third parties, along with the runner-up Ds and Rs, and the nondescript “NPs”, are toast. Tossed to the side. This is what “open” and “top-two” primaries get you: thrown to the side of the road. In Oregon, the small parties don’t even participate in May primary (it’s a formality). Libertarians, Greens, Independents, Progressives, Constitutionalists — they get to remain part of the process until Election Day. They’ll get the occasional media coverage, sometimes be part of debates, have the chance to talk to Jeff Mapes now and then. They have no hope in hell of winning a seat in the Legislature or any other major race, but they remain a part of the process all the way through to November.

Steve Collett, CD 36 Libertarian? Hit the road, Jack.

Maria Montano, CD 36 Peace and Freedom? Buh-bye.

Roozee, Pilot, Chamness: Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

This is not democracy. This is power-grabbing. The most aggressive Democrat came in first, a rich Republican bought his way to second place, and the Secretary of State came in third. Granted, under the old system, that outcome would unlikely be changed, but this one little difference would be true:

The small parties would not be roadkill.

Also, you would not have a final runoff with two Dems, and that’s a strong possibility here. After the late votes have been counted, Bowen could finish second. But instead of losing the Democratic nomination, as was true before Prop 14 (which instituted this system), she’d simply be the other participant in the runoff.

And the Republicans would be roadkill as well.

Democracy is not served by limiting participation. I don’t care if a party has any chance of winning an election; I don’t care if everything they stand for is offensive to me (Constitution Party; Progressive (so-called) Party; GOP). I don’t care if it costs more. We say over and over that American liberty and democracy is something worth giving our lives for. A few bucks is a far smaller price. But California, and our neighbors to the north, have decided to toss aside democracy and openness for a system that marginalizes small parties even more.

Yes, those committed to the Libertarians and PF voted in higher numbers than did others, but the Ds and Rs obliterated them. What happens next spring? With results like this, and a primary system like this, why would anyone waste a vote on them? Since the primary now has the hard core impact of culling the field down to two, voters have no incentive, other than fanaticism or stubbornness, to vote for anyone other than the Democrat or Republican. And as committed as I am to the Democratic Party, I think that’s horrible. Imagine if the Timbers pre-season involved nothing but high school teams. Would they have outplayed the Sounders last weekend? Or would they have been smushed?

Democracy is an all-comers event. We need everyone to vote, and we need all parties to participate. The general election needs to be a big, messy brawl. Let the parties find a single nominee for the various offices, and then let all nominees take their arguments to the voters. You don’t like “politics”? Forcing all but two candidates out of the process early doesn’t fix that; it just lets the big dogs fight it out over money, tv, and all the fun electioneering more and more Americans hate. We fix these problems with more, not less, participation.

CD 36 will have either 2 Dems in the runoff, or a Dem and wealthy Republican. How is this an improvement, California? How do marginalized voters have more say now, Phil Kiesling?

Where is the growth in democracy?

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    There are some math issues here that muddy your thesis. Using registration as a proxy for voting tallies I understand in part because there are no open primaries to compare these results to...but you are likely to get a better analogue to actual voting by using a general election. What are third-party voting patterns in CA general elections?

    Secondly, it's a little misleading to compare voting percentages by party when the minor party Ns are so much lower than for Dems or GOP. It takes a lot more voters to move the dial one percentage point for larger parties, than for minor ones.

    And I'm confused by the argument that primaries should be closed, using statements like "Democracy is not served by limiting participation" and "Democracy is an all-comers event." Primaries aren't part of democracy?

    For the record, I generally support closed primaries. If you join the club, you should be the only ones who get to vote. But the analysis that a top-two open primary stymies the chances of a minor candidate, ignores the possibility that a minor candidate can elevate to top two under open primaries, where in closed primaries they are ALWAYS, 100%, doomed to be the 3rd candidate. Open primaries create a situation where a general need not be D vs R vs whomever else. It could be D vs CON, PRO v GRN, LIB vs D, etc. That the practical likelihood of this happening is still low is a function of voter behavior, not the structure of the vote process. And to the extent that open primaries make a two way race with a minor candidate possible, that's an advantage, structurally speaking, over closed.

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      i don't need results for my main point, anyway: these systems remove everyone but 1 D & 1 R from the general election. there will be some exceptions, but those will be rare.

      a party is not simply a mark by your registration. it's an affiliation (hence, in OR, we have non-affiliated voters, NAVs, not independents). parties have activists who work damn hard for candidates, policies, etc. those who want to acknowledge that affiliation by, at the very least, registering as a member of the party (or supporter) - those are the ones who should select nominees. anyone can register as a D, or R, or Lib. and you can change that as often as you want. so it's not closed; it's directed. there is nothing to stop anyone from participating in the Democratic primary - but they shouldn't get to vote D in one race & then R in another. that's not fair to the parties or its real supporters.

      but once the nominees have been selected, then it's another story.

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        There's a very simple solution to the concern that party activists are the ones who should be making the nominations. The major parties can decide to select their nominees through convention or some manner other than an open primary. I'm not sure current law directly addresses that right, since it's written to assure the D's and R's nomination processes are paid for by all taxpayer, but any change to an open primary could certainly ensure that right.

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    It's not accurate that turnout for minor parties is higher than for other parties. In Oregon D's & R's have had significantly higher turnout rates than minor political parties ever since I started tracking those statistics in 2002.

    Also, unlike in closed primaries, minor party candidates have an equal opportunity to compete on a statewide primary ballot with the major parties.

    Regarding representation in CD 36 -- It's a Democratic district. I would argue that in a district like that one, or, say in inner Portland where you live, that a general election featuring 2 Democrats is probably more representative of the district than a general election featuring a D & R.

    By the way, it's not just Phil Keisling who supports an open primary. Our Governor sponsored an open primary bill in this legislative session, and the idea has support of about 40 percent of Oregon legislators.

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      Sal, it was for this election. they did turnout in higher percentages. i didn't say anything about other elections.

      open primaries will kill minor parties. hell, i know they don't win anything now, but at least they get to stay in the game all year. in some cases, there's only a Lib or Const to take on a Dem, and that's a good thing. if people really really hate closed primaries (and there's no indication they do in Oregon, given how little traction your movement is getting around the state), there are far better solutions, such as Instant-runoff voting. but open/top-two - it's just bad for democracy.

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        People in my party support an open primary by about 85%-10%. Statewide the public support is in the 60-70 percent range. I think the measure lost in 2008, primarily because it had a terrible ballot title.

        I tend to think that an open "top-two" primary will help minor parties like ours or the working families party, even though it eliminates the spoiler role of third parties.

        The net effect of an open primary will be to set up more one-on-one races between minor and major party candidates, which is certainly one of the goals of our party, and the results from the last 2 elections seem to suggest that we can do pretty well when we can get a one-on-one contest against major party candidates.

        I also tend to think that this will generally help minor party registration in California, since the biggest cause of outflow from minor political parties are people who leave to vote in major party primaries, such as the Obama-Clinton primary in 2008.

        The second biggest obstacle to the long-term growth of minor political parties is the accurate belief that votes for minor party candidates are generally "wasted" in the general election. By eliminating the spoiler potential, this obstacle is also lifted.

        Just my $0.02.

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    In the United States, there have been 775 elections between 1975 and 2010, for state and federal office, which used either blanket or top-two primaries, and in which there was a minor party member running against at least two major party members. Out of those 775 instances, there are only 2 cases in which the minor party member placed first or second. This evidence is in the record in the pending Washington state lawsuit and anyone can read my declaration (which lists all 775 instances) on the Washington Secretary of State's web page.

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      As I said, that's a voter behavior issue, not a structural problem.

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        structure impacts behavior. if a voter believes his or her vote for a non-D/R would matter, as it would with instant-runoff, then you'll get a different behavior than you would under the current system or open/top-two. a structure has to make outcomes possible or behavior will not even be able to adjust towards that outcome.

        or is that what you meant?

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        That's a totally meaningless distinction. Structure shapes behavior. People are going to make decisions based on the rules of the game. Considering electoral structure without any regard for how it will influence voter behavior is silly.

        If the state legislature passed a bill requiring that you have to run a marathon on election day in order to vote, and then voter turnout plummeted, they couldn't just say "Well that's a behavioral issue, not a structural one. People can still vote if they want, they're just too lazy to run a marathon. That's not our fault".

        When you're evaluating an electoral system, you have to consider how it influences voter behavior.

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    TA, with all due respect… are you really saying 3rd parties are being disenfranchised when they barely attract enough voters to fill a wedding hall? It looks to me like the candidates offered were just overwhelmingly unpopular.

    A much stronger case for disenfranchisement could be made if Bowen catches Huey in a recount. That would create a situation where 41% of votes went to Republican candidates in the primary but the general was between two Democrats. I happen to like open primaries, and my argument in that case is that we don’t elect parties, we elect people. That’s the whole point of an open primary. It isn’t about helping some parties at the expense of others, it’s about de-emphasizing party across the board.

    Minor quibble- the total vote count is 52K, not 42K.

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    B.J., just because minor party members poll a small vote in a primary doesn't mean they wouldn't do well in a general election. Jesse Ventura only got 3% of the vote in Minnesota's open primary in mid-September 1998 (and any voter was free to vote for Ventura, by choosing to vote in the Reform Party's primary). But he won in November.

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      I wouldn’t argue non-partisan races for statewide office. The issues and number of people involved make it unlikely for any party to have overwhelming support. Non partisan primaries at that scale would serve only to lock in the two majors, that is not what I suggest.

      At the district level that kind of consensus is possible, even likely (“swing districts” are the exception and not the rule). Voters in Oregon CD 3 for instance are not trying to figure out whether they are pro-choice or anti-choice. They are not trying to figure out whether lower taxes are more important to them then government service. Those questions just aren’t relevant in that district, and a general election based on those issues isn’t a choice at all.

      So what kills democracy more when it comes to district based office: reducing most general elections to the question of jersey color, or missing out on the chance of a black swan 3rd party candidate capable of winning a general after not finishing better then 3rd in a primary?

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    If parties want to choose their candidates without interference from people that aren't registered members, then they can pay for them out of their own pocket. If they want the public to pay for them, it's utter B.S. to bar the public from participating.

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      Major parties once selected candidates at conventions. Government, in the interest of a more open process, insisted on primary elections and, therefore, pay for those primaries.

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    There is NO right to public funds, for partisan ends.

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    I oppose non-partisan primaries, but I do not see that your analysis of these California results makes a compelling case. It's the money. It's almost all about the money.

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