I’m confused by some of the complaining about so-called “closed primaries.” Pennsylvania’s primaries are next week, but it’s not accurate to say that “Pennsylvania” is holding elections. The Republican and Democratic Parties are holding elections to choose their nominees. Republicans are voting for Republican nominees and Democrats are voting for Democratic nominees. How else should that work?
I don’t have any say in who the members of the Republican Party will pick for their nominees because I am not a member of the Republican Party and I shouldn’t have any say in that. I also shouldn’t have any say in selecting candidates for the Libertarian Party, or the Constitution Party, or the Green Party, or any other party of which I am not a member. Likewise, Pennsylvania Republicans shouldn’t have any say in selecting the nominees for my party — a party they have chosen not to join.
The complaint seems to be that both parties are thereby “disenfranchising” those who have not chosen to join them. That’s just … odd. It’s akin to my claiming that I’m being disenfranchised when you go into the voting booth because I have no say in how you fill out your ballot. Your “closed” balloting on your own behalf is exclusionary! That makes no sense. It is not in any way unfair or unjust that I don’t have the right to meddle in the Republican nomination process. I’m not thereby being deprived of any right.
But what of “independents”? Well, they’re not Republicans either, so they also should not be interfering with Republicans’ selection process. Nor are they Democrats, or Libertarians, or Anti-Masonists or Greens — and having chosen not to belong to any of those groups, it makes no sense to argue they have a right to make decisions on those groups’ behalf.
Parties pick their own nominees. If you want to participate in any given party’s nomination process, join that party. Otherwise, what possible claim could you have to any right to choose on their behalf?
The complaint in New York was not that the state has a “closed” primary, but that the state makes it difficult for voters to join any party close to the election, and by the time many “independents” decided that they wanted to cease being lone wolves* and actually participate in one of the parties it was too late for them to register in time to cast a vote in the primaries.
OK, maybe New York wants to make it easier to switch parties. Maybe make it possible to do this on the same day as the primary. The tricky thing here is that this potentially opens the door to manipulative meddling and dirty tricks.
Think of Delaware in 2010. County executive Chris Coons was running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, expected to be his party’s sacrificial lamb up against overwhelmingly popular Republican Rep. Mike Castle. Same-day party switching would’ve allowed all of Delaware’s Democrats to “join” the Republican Party for one day, just so they could cast their votes for the goofy religious-right whackjob outsider running against Castle in the GOP primary. Then they could all switch back for the general election, and Chris Coons — to everyone’s surprise — would wind up a U.S. senator.
The fact that Republicans actually did this to themselves — with more than 80 percent of them staying home assuming that Castle had it in the bag, allowing Christine O’Donnell to grab the party’s nomination with a narrow win in a very low turnout GOP primary — doesn’t change the fact that it would have been sleazy foul play for Delaware’s Democrats to manipulate the outcome of another party’s selection process.
Delaware’s (“closed”) primary process wasn’t set up in a way that allowed non-Republicans to interfere with that party’s selection of its nominee for the Senate race, but we’ve seen plenty of other “open” primary results that bear a strong whiff of such meddling. Alvin Greene — an eccentric unknown who didn’t actually campaign — won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in South Carolina in 2010, going on to lose the general election in a landslide to Republican incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint, who had been unopposed in the state’s open primary.
This NPR report from last year looks at similar strange primary results — unknown absentee candidates who won without campaigning in Mississippi and Tennessee. Jessica Taylor notes that the Democratic Party in those states is weak and disorganized, and that all of these candidates may have benefited from having common names that would have been listed first alphabetically.
That’s all true, but so is this: Mississippi and Tennessee also have open primaries. Maybe these no-chance oddballs won those primaries because Democrats were lax and apathetic. But it’s also possible that they benefited from manipulation of an open primary system that allows and encourages cross-partisan sabotage.
I sympathize with part of the motivation for many of the complaints about “closed” primaries. I agree that party registration should be simple, accessible, and as open as possible, and that it’s better to remove as many hurdles as possible in the hopes of boosting participation in primary elections. (The turnout for the primary Christine O’Donnell won — around 14 percent if I remember correctly — was really disgraceful.) But I don’t want to open the door to trickery, exploitation and manipulation.
Next week, Pennsylvania Republicans will choose a Republican nominee for president and for senator and for many other state and county offices. I won’t have any say in that because I am not a Republican. Nor will Pennsylvania Republicans have any say in which candidates we Democrats nominate to run for any of those offices. I think that’s proper and fair.
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* Complaints about “closed” primaries are also sometimes a bit hard to swallow in that many of them come from the sort of “registered independent” voters who, frankly, are just annoying. I’m talking about the kind of people who express and possess a clear partisan preference, but who choose not to be identified with either the Republican or the Democratic parties because they want to be able to claim some kind of moral superiority over everyone else. Why are they “independent”? So they can tell people they’re independent. So they can condemn everyone else for all the complicity that comes with accepting the responsibility of making choices. These folks aren’t being “disenfranchised” by a closed primary system — they’ve chosen to disenfranchise themselves.
This is what Erik Loomis is getting at here:
If you wanted to vote for Bernie but couldn’t soil yourself with being a Democrat, your fault. Voting isn’t a consumer choice. It’s a compromise with reality. Registering as an independent is fine if you want to remain so pure you can’t be stained by whatever the Democrats choke up. But don’t complain that you couldn’t vote for the candidate you want to win.