A Case for Keeping Primary Voting Confined to Party Members

Political parties at every level of government choose their nominees through primaries. That's the most important decision a party can make—and an organization's most important decisions should be made by members of that organization.
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A man casts a vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary on February 20th, 2016, in West Columbia, South Carolina.

A man casts a vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary on February 20th, 2016, in West Columbia, South Carolina.

Last week, Open Primaries, a non-partisan voting advocacy group, posted several tweets making the argument that no American should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their right to vote. One of these tweets focused on a man claiming that participating in a primary election was his "birthright." I issued some responses on Twitter, which invited further tweets. But I thought it would be helpful to actually have something of a discussion here. So I'll try to make my argument for keeping primaries closed while, to the best of my ability, fairly addressing objections to this position.

Here's my main pitch: Political parties at every level of government choose their nominees through primaries. That's the most important decision a party can make—and an organization's most important decisions should be made by members of that organization. Joining a political party in the United States is a pretty simple procedure; it most often requires that you check a box on a voter registration form. American parties do not require membership dues or loyalty oaths. If you want to participate in a party's primary, you should at the very least be a member. Allowing Independents and Republicans to select the Democrats' next nominees, or some other combination, is a good way to destroy a party and its meaning.

Below, I explore in greater depth the arguments for and against open primary laws.

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The Constitution gives me the right to vote. Closed primary laws shouldn't prevent me from voting.

You have a right to vote in a general election. That's where we choose who represents us in government. This is a vital task in a representative democracy and barriers to voting should be as low as possible. But this does not extend to primary elections, which are used to determine nominees for parties. A party is not a government, and your rights are not being violated if you're told you can't vote in a primary because you're not a member of that party.

You seem pretty comfortable with demanding that people join parties to vote in primaries. Isn't this like saying that people should have to get an ID card to vote in a general election? That's a pretty low bar too.

No. Primary elections are not the same as general elections and it's a mistake to treat them that way. Political scientists sometimes refer to parties as "semi-public utilities." That is, they serve important public functions—such as determining who may run for office and who may not—but they are also quasi-private organizations that can set rules for their own memberships. Because of their semi-public roles, there are limits on their abilities to set rules for themselves—they can't discriminate on the basis of race or gender, even though many parties once did. But again, parties are not governments, and even thinking about them as democracies is problematic. They are organizations, with leaders and rank-and-file members. And their decision-making processes are not open to just anyone who wants to show up. General elections, conversely, are supposed to be open to any adult citizen. An ID card requirement is a barrier to general election voting that is experienced differently across different racial and income groups and thus is highly problematic from a constitutional perspective.

But I pay for primary elections as a taxpayer. I shouldn't be excluded from participating in something that I'm paying for.

You pay for highways, but those are only available to licensed drivers. You pay for an Air Force, but you have to pass a lot of tests to join that. You pay for public schools you and your kids might not be able to attend. Nonetheless, this is an important objection. The state got involved in party nominations in large part to solve the problem of multiple people and groups claiming to be the true party in various parts of the country. A state-run primary election made those decisions final and obvious. See work by John Reynolds and Alan Ware for more on this.

But a lot of general elections in this country are uncompetitive. In those cases, the primary really is the election—it's the only place where voters have a real choice. Shouldn't anyone be able to participate in those primaries?

In lopsided districts, that seems like an even more important place to join the dominant political party and try to steer its choices more toward your preferences. You may disagree with a lot of what that party does, but you'll have a lot more influence in it as a member than as a non-member. And your vote will be more consequential in that primary than in the general election. You could also join the minority party and try to help it recruit candidates and appeal to voters to make it more competitive.

Joining a party is an overt act of partisanship—it's public record. If I'm a journalist, or an academic, or a lawyer, or someone else trying to avoid looking biased, this might look bad for me, but I still want to vote.

There are many perfectly legitimate reasons for not wanting to join a party or any other organization. But that decision has consequences, such as not getting to participate in that organization's decision-making processes. I might legitimately not want to join a union, but in doing so I accept that certain jobs may be unavailable to me as a result. I can't vote in Coca Cola's board elections if I don't own stock in that company. I might get angry at the American Political Science Association and withdraw my membership; I don't still get to vote in its leadership elections.

Look, I just don't like any of these parties. I don't feel like any of them represents my views well, and I don't want to have to join one to participate in politics.

You're not alone! Nonetheless, our political system is shot through with parties, and it turns out that parties are pretty vital to maintaining a healthy democracy. They're not about to go away. What's more, if you want to get anything done in our political system—create a law or prevent one, get someone you like elected to office, get yourself elected to office—it's far more effective to do so operating through a political party. Your best bet is to pick one and get active in it, attending meetings, donating time and money, etc., but always pushing for the types of candidates and policies you like. People can actually transform political parties, and that's been done more times and more effectively than non-partisans transforming governments.

If you're so opposed to outsiders participating in nominations, why not just go back to conventions and smoke-filled rooms for picking nominees?

Don't get me started.

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