The case for open primaries
In his farewell address, George Washington, “In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union” warned of the grave dangers of political parties then just developing at the time of his departure from the presidency.
The “spirit of party,” Washington said, “is, unfortunately, inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind…The alternate domination of one faction over another…is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.” Eventually, Washington argued, the spirit of party “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection”…and “opens the door to foreign influence and corruption…”
Throughout our half-century of friendship and political engagement, we’ve been, as many Americans are, admirers of Theodore Roosevelt. He’s been credited with the quotation, “The only way to improve democracy is with more democracy.” That sounds like something TR would say, even though truth be told, he never said it.
If there is a great leader in American history that we could call back to lead the way in this troubled time it just might be “Theodore Rex,” as his biographer described him. The hard fact is, however, that each generation must find its own way forward, promote its own leaders and, in the process, rely upon history as a guide.
Some of the challenges TR led us through are still with us, such as great concentrations of wealth and the sustaining of our life-giving environment. As our democracy further matures, however, we inevitably face more demands for change and little margin for error.
One challenge that fundamentally threatens our very existence as a free people is the loss of faith in the conduct of elections that appears to be developing among us. Since there can be no stable democracy without public confidence in elections, we propose, here, a reform that is based on a variation of the idea of improving democracy with more democracy. We believe the best way to safeguard human freedom, is with more freedom.
In Montana, and in many other states, voters in primary elections are not free to vote for candidates of their choice. The purpose of primary elections in Montana and other states is for the two major political parties to select their most formidable partisans, who will then face off in the general election in the fall. In the primary election, voters are forced to make a choice to vote either a straight Republican or Democratic ticket. That’s a choice, but it’s clearly not truly a freedom of choice.
In addition, according to Gallup, neither political party can claim today the highest share of supporters. Instead, the largest bloc of voters in America today identify themselves as political independents. These are voters whose freedom to choose the candidate of their choice is diminished by partisan primary elections.
An open primary election would allow every voter to vote for any candidate in any party in the primary election. Such a primary could narrow the field to the top two, as in Washington and California, or as in Alaska, narrow the contest in the primary election to the top four, with a ranked order run-off in the general election.
Such primary election reforms would increase the chances of issue and solution-oriented candidates to move on from the primary to the general election. Candidates narrowly focusing on ultra partisan true believers would likely be dislodged from the position of dominance they enjoy with closed primary elections.
There can be no debate that today’s issues are fundamental to the survival of our democratic republic. The petty politics that accompany our current system of primary elections are a trivial distraction at a time when our main focus needs to be on solutions. There can be no real government of, by and for the people unless the people are free to make their own choices, unconstrained by the narrowly defined choices made for them by the major political parties.
We’re old enough to remember when a common criticism of the two major parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between them.
Now, a more common criticism is that both are too extreme. Maybe we’re at a time when the parties should both step back to allow greater freedom for “government by the consent of the governed,” as open and free primary elections would allow.
Hopefully, every candidate will think carefully and sincerely about this reform, and, just as hopefully, voters will be asking candidates from now until November where they stand on the issue of open primaries.
Marc Racicot, Former Montana Governor
Bob Brown, Former Montana Secretary of State