Posted by Kellie Ryan on January 04, 2016 at 1:08 PM
Open Primaries at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators
In December, I attended the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in Los Angeles, California. Prior to arriving, my colleagues and I were anxious about how the African American leadership would receive us.
My previous negative experiences with the older generation made me pessimistic about the leadership’s receptiveness to Open Primaries’ presence. Dr. Jesse Fields reminded me to keep an open mind; I agreed and took her advice. I was nervous prior to my arrival and upon touching down, I had varying experiences with a variety of people.
“Gallup reports 45% of Americans consider themselves independents, making them the largest community of voters in the country.” These poll results mirror an important statement as Americans refuse to join parties because they feel their voices are not being heard.
I was honored to be a voice expressing discontent with our current electoral system and I am confident our presence spoke volumes at NBCSL.
As it stands now, Washington is highly polarized and the American people, particularly African Americans, feel disenfranchised when it comes to influencing their legislator’s policy agendas. 35% of African American voters under the age of 40 are independent. That’s nearly 2 million African American’s excluded from the primaries across the country. If we don’t have a say in who gets elected in the primary, we have no chance to influence the general election’s outcome, making it impossible to influence the legislative agenda.
Later that first evening, I found myself at the bar, speaking with a Maryland Delegate about electoral reform. Although the Delegate seemed reluctant to embrace the idea of open primaries, he was open to learning more. This conversation served as a confidence boost to my ego as the stance on this issue of electoral reform had been rejected by other legislators who were more in favor of the parties versus the people. This interaction was quite possibly the most positive since my arrival at the conference, however, there was much more positive to come.
Over the course of the next two days, Jason and I made plenty of positive contact with the African American leadership present at NBCSL. Our meeting with one state’s Black Caucus was the biggest highlight of the trip as we were able to address their concerns regarding the inability of their State’s Democratic Party to remain in control of the legislature. Democrats just lost the governorship in this particular state and one of its Representative’s was flustered by this loss.
During our meeting with these caucus members, Jason and I were able to explain how the open primary system could assist his caucus gain mobility to appease to a broader voter base and possibly light a fire under the their state’s Democratic establishment. It brought joy to my spirit seeing how this Representative was fired up about showing his party their tactics aren’t the only game in town.
Attending this conference was important as it allowed me the opportunity to voice my concerns about America’s Democracy and why an open primary system will get America’s democracy functioning the way it should. An open primary means allowing all candidates despite their party affiliation to appear on a single ballot while allowing all voters to vote for their favorite candidate.
The top two voter getters then advance to the the general election and duke it out to fill the contested legislator seat.
According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, African-Americans have been the least successful demographic in America in achieving policy outcomes since 1972. This is the result of a corrupted electoral system that puts private interest above the common good.
Open primaries mean voter mobility along with the ability to form broader coalitions to have an impact at the polls and hold elected officials accountable. African Americans can have a greater impact on legislative policy agendas only if they have the ability to organize new broad coalitions that actually have an impact at the polls.
If we want to have an impact in our community, we cannot continue to be reactive and expect the current establishment to fulfill a bag of false promises. We need to be proactive and help change the very system that disenfranchises us.
If you have not already done so, I urge you to support Senator John Delaney’s Open Our Democracy Act, a piece of federal legislation making all congressional primaries Top Two primaries. If you’ve already signed on, please share it with friends. If you’ve already done that, tell them again. Now is a crucial time, and we need everyone to do their part to Open Our Democracy.
Jarrell Corley is an Illinois Open Primaries Activist based in Chicago.