The Case for Open Primaries

Published in the Hollister Free Lance, December 5, 1998
Dear Editor:

In its December 1 editorial, the Free Lance came out against Proposition 198, the open primary law. The claim is made that it "impermissibly throttles the rights and voices of parties". Apparently, the author felt open primaries violated the First Amendment right of "freedom of speech or the right of people to associate for political ends."

I tend to take the Bill of Rights fairly literally (for example, burning a flag is not exercising free "speech" in my view). Given that, I don't view the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to peacefully assemble as having much to do with primary elections (or any elections). Most elections are not "assemblies" -- people can vote without assembling at all.

Regarding free speech, assuming choosing a political candidate is "speech", I don't view Proposition 198 as limiting the speech of political parties; I view it as guaranteeing the free speech of every person in the primary elections -- even if they belong to a party not fielding a full slate of candidates. And I feel the rights of the individual are always paramount compared to the rights of a political party.

The author also raised the spectre that crossover voting may decide some primaries. Even if that's true, that doesn't mean that it's a bad thing.

I'm a Republican, but in the upcoming gubernatorial race, Dan Lungren has no apparent opposition, so I may well decide to vote for a Democrat -- one that is most in line with the issues I believe in -- to hedge my bets in case a Democrat wins. That way I'd be somewhat satisfied with either candidate in the general election if my Democrat won the primary.

However, such a strategy could backfire. For example, if I vote for a conservative Democrat, that candidate may get more moderate votes during the general election, and thus swing the vote away from the Republican candidate. (The same thing could hold for Democrats voting for a liberal Republican during the primary.) Thus, I could end up getting a governor in the party I normally would not vote for, whereas if I'd voted for my party's candidate, and a more liberal Democrat was nominated, the Republican might have won the election!

Also, the author neglected to mention that you can engage in crossover voting in any election you want under current laws. You merely have to change the party you are registered under. The downside is that this is an all-or-nothing decision under today's laws -- in a primary, you can only vote for candidates of the party you are registered under. But if one race is of paramount importance to you, it may be worthwhile to do that.

I also don't feel that an open primary "neuters" political parties as the author claimed. In an article by Dan Walters in the Free Lance, he said that at least one party leader suggested that Proposition 198 would lead to party caucuses instead of primaries. They have caucuses in Iowa, and if they're legal in California, the parties will still be free to select their own candidates that way.

Even if caucuses aren't an option, parties could still apply pressure to candidates not to run during the primary. If a party thought a specific candidate would garner too many crossover votes, they could withhold funds and take other actions to encourage that candidate not to run.

If you don't believe that, consider that, currently, anybody can run for election as a Republican or Democrat even if the party doesn't approve. If that happens a lot, then that shows that the parties already don't have much control over who may represent their party; if it doesn't happen a lot, that's pretty good evidence that the parties already exert some control and should still be able to in the world of Proposition 198.

But the most important fact about Proposition 198 is that the people (including me) voted for it. As it doesn't seem to unfairly affect other people, I'm glad that Judge Levi upheld it. I look forward to voting for any Democrat other than Diane Feinstein in the gubernatorial primary.

UPDATE: Proposition 198 was passed, making open primaries the law.


Want to comment on this? E-mail me at [steve@svpocketpc.com].