Open primaries: Wrong solution to the wrong problem

I’m a registered Republican, but ever since the Party of Reagan has become the Party of Trump, that label fits less comfortably. Call me old fashioned, but I miss individual decency, the Shining City on the Hill, and a basic understanding of and respect for the American constitutional framework. Neither major party candidate even came close to that last year, so I was left voting for my inept cousin Gary this time around. Locally, we have a lot of great Republican elected officials, but too many not-so-great ones as well. I’d love to have a viable alternative, perhaps one who recognizes the importance of free markets or who understands Russia didn’t stop being a geopolitical adversary just because keytars went out of style.

So you might well think I’d be all for Senator James Settelmeyer’s bill to change our primary elections to an open primary system, where anyone can vote for anyone, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, go to the general election. (I read with interest Doug Goodman’s case for the bill last Sunday.)

But I’m against this plan. It’s the wrong solution to the wrong set of problems. And just in case you need dissuading beyond, “But California does it,” let’s break it down.

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Entrenched partisanship in our government is a problem, and no sane person disputes this. But open primaries don’t solve the problem of partisanship in government. More on that in a bit, but first, what are the problems open primary advocates point to?

All the moderates are registering as non-partisans, leaving only the lunatic fringe selecting our increasingly extreme candidates. Is there really evidence to back this up?  Let’s look locally. Two years ago, in a Republican wave election, the indisputably moderate Gov. Brian Sandoval was re-selected by GOP primary voters with nearly 90% of the vote. No serious alternate candidate bothered to challenge him. Four years prior, Sandoval ousted the hard-line conservative Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons, with only Republican primary voters to thank.

It’s true that Sharron Angle also won that year, but she only had 40% of the primary vote.  Consider what that number would have looked like if Democrats, eager to help an unopposed Harry Reid face the weakest possible opponent, tactically voted for the least mainstream GOP candidate they could find. An open primary that year would have exacerbated rather than mitigated the “fringe candidate” problem.

Down-ballot, a majority of the Republicans elected to the Legislature in 2014 supported tax increases for education along with reforms such as limiting the power of unions and expanding school choice. Social issues were never a priority. One can disagree with these positions, but they’re hardly unprecedented far-right-wingery.

Donald Trump is actually one of the least conservative Republicans since Teddy Roosevelt.  He’s comfortable with unchecked, energetic Big Government action, he’s an economic protectionist, he’s union-friendly, and social issues are largely irrelevant to him. His position on immigration is on par with Bill Clinton’s when he was President, and far less extreme than President Eisenhower of “Operation Wetback” fame.

It’s a little tougher to get a bead on the Dems, since they have (well, had) Prince Harry to coronate candidates and prevent bloody primary battles. But Congressman Ruben Kihuen handily beat out candidates who embraced the radical socialism of Bernie Sanders, and Sanders himself was likewise defeated. Again, there’s just no evidence that fringe candidates are winning too often.

Non-partisans are disenfranchised from the primary process. If any word is more misused in political rhetoric than “mandate,” it’s “disenfranchised.” Anyone who wants to vote in a Republican primary can do it – all they have to do is register as a Republican. Choosing to not register with a party means you’re choosing to not tell that party who should represent them, not that you’re being prevented somehow from participating.

With the way our government is currently set up, I think it’s irresponsible in most cases not to pick a party for primary voting purposes, but folks can’t complain they don’t at least have an option. Nothing whatsoever prevents a non-partisan from running against the major party candidates.

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The problem is not that members of a political party get to choose their standard bearers without non-member interference, it’s that we allow too great a role for those parties in the structure of our Legislature. That’s what needs reform, and without that, open primaries solve nothing.

Even if the balance of power between the parties is razor thin, that bare majority confers enormous power on just a few individual legislators. Members meet in party-specific closed-door caucus meetings. Dissenting members can be effectively shut down by party leadership. Leaders and committee chairs can kill a bill, even if it has broad popular support. The more moderate or non-ideological the legislator, the less likely he or she will have meaningful influence on policy. A minor party or non-partisan legislator must either join one of the teams, or be sidelined completely. Plenty of relatively moderate candidates get elected, but the way the Legislature organizes itself forces everyone into entrenched partisan positions once the session is gaveled to order.

Instead of taking partisanship out of elections (where it belongs), we should start eliminating its legal sanction in government itself. Create objective criteria for committee chairmanships and assignments that ignore party affiliation – seniority, random selection, or even rotating chairs could serve this purpose. Better yet, we could go whole hog and make the state legislature officially a non-partisan body. Why not? It works for Nebraska, and plenty of local governing bodies here in Nevada.

Open primaries make sense for non-partisan races. But they would do nothing to stop political polarization – and may even make things worse – as long as partisanship is a structural element of the Legislature’s operations.
Orrin Johnson was a political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2015 and 2016. He began blogging in 2005 for his law school’s Federalist Society chapter and in 2007 started his own blog, First Principles. He can be reached at orrin@orrinjohnson.com. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson.