Could open primaries be a panacea for low turnout, rising polarization and partisan fighting? - Open Primaries
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Could open primaries be a panacea for low turnout, rising polarization and partisan fighting?

Posted by Russell Daniels on June 01, 2020 at 10:54 AM

Could open primaries be a panacea for low turnout, rising polarization and partisan fighting?

WASHINGTON — In 2017, in the months after President Donald Trump took office, about four dozen civic leaders in Philadelphia gathered to talk about the years of political polarization that had led to a moment of deep division. 

The board members of the Committee of Seventy — whose membership is akin to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development in Pittsburgh — walked away with a bipartisan solution: a renewed statewide push for open primary elections.

Pennsylvania is one of just nine states that restrict participation in Republican and Democratic primary elections to voters registered with each of the respective parties.

But a growing chorus of moderates in both parties have argued in recent years that these closed primaries can push into office candidates who, with more extreme views that cater only to the party’s base of voters, contribute to rising partisan gridlock seen in Harrisburg and Capitol Hill.

Ahead of this Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, the call to broaden the base of eligible voters has been broadcast by those moderates as much of the country girds itself for another presidential election season. 

“This is about basic fairness,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic organization that advocates for public policies that enable a more effective government.

Closed primaries, Mr. Thornburgh said, unfairly exclude a large swath of independent voters, especially the rising tide of younger voters who are fed up with partisan bickering. 

With low voter turnout in primary elections — Pennsylvania notched just 18% turnout in the 2018 primaries — closed primaries can generate further apathy in the general election because the two candidates were picked by a fraction of total voters and have little to say to centrists.

“You’re ignoring the wishes of a lot of people out there,” said Mr. Thornburgh, the son of former Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

“At our best, we’re sort of a center-right center-left political culture,” he added, referring to the state as a whole. “Seems to me this change would speak to the way we act.”

Broken system?

Mr. Trump’s election was seen by some as evidence the primary system was broken.

At the committee’s 2017 retreat, Charlie Dent, then a seven-term Republican congressman representing the Lehigh Valley, spoke to the group about the rising partisan fighting he had encountered in Washington.

Mr. Dent has publicly clashed with Mr. Trump over the president’s priorities, refusing to support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Mr. Dent resigned from office in May 2018. 

A few decades ago, he was not a big fan of open primaries, Mr. Dent said in an interview last week. But he has since changed his mind. 

“Voting patterns have become so tribal,” with both parties believing they should “just double down, triple down, quadruple down on our base, and drive our base out, as a way to win,” Mr. Dent said.

He said Mr. Trump has contributed to an ineffective Congress. By the time he left the House, Mr. Dent said, many lawmakers were loyal only to their party leadership and not to work together for their constituents or to hold the executive branch in check.

“The president is a kind of accelerant” of political division, Mr. Dent said. “To the extent that we could have, perhaps, some moderating influences in both parties’ primaries would be a good thing.”

The idea resonates with voters across the spectrum, said John Denny, owner of Denny Civic Solutions, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm providing services to the open primaries campaign.

It’s a particular issue with unaffiliated voters who are effectively shut out from participating in elections that are publicly funded and privately administered. Independents “can’t understand why they’re not allowed to vote,” Mr. Denny said.

The fastest-growing segment of Pennsylvania voters are unaffiliated with any political party, totaling more than 1.2 million people, or 14% of all registered voters as of 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. 

For unaffiliated voters, the issue of extremism has begun “to strike more of a chord,” Mr. Denny said. 

Closed primaries have “allowed candidates to run to the most extreme positions of their parties,” Mr. Denny said. “The only people who are voting in their primaries are really hardcore — very, very liberal or very, very conservative members — and thus it is only the deepening the polarizations and lack of compromise.”

Open primary support

Former Pennsylvania governors like Tom Ridge, a Republican, and Ed Rendell, a Democrat, are counted among the supporters of open primaries. And last October, the former chairs of the state’s Republican and Democratic Party joined to write a letter urging the General Assembly to pass Senate Bill 300.

The measure — which would open up primaries to unaffiliated voters while still prohibiting voters registered with the other party — sailed through the state senate by a 42-8 vote in June 2019.

“Wouldn’t parties be better and stronger if they competed for the attention and votes of independents as early as possible — the primaries?” wrote Alan Novak, the former Republican chair, and T.J. Rooney, the former Democratic chair.

“Open primaries would help us bridge this chasm in our politics that has made governing increasingly difficult,” they wrote. “This has become only more consequential as communities around Pennsylvania become darker ‘red’ or darker ‘blue.’”

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, facing a primary challenger this year, said he’d worry that open primaries could allow voters outside the party to intentionally swing an election in favor of a weaker candidate to undermine the party’s chances in the general election.

“I think we register in parties for a reason, and I personally favor just allowing Democrats to vote in Democratic primaries,” Mr. Doyle said. “People register in a political party ... because they share a certain commonality with a lot of that party’s platforms and goals.”

Mr. Thornburgh said those types of concerns — that a party might be diluted by voters outside party registrants — could make for a long road ahead for any change.

“Anytime you change the rules by which people are elected, the folks elected under the current rules are not exactly eager to replace that,” Mr. Thornburgh said.

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