History - Open Primaries
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The History of the open primaries movement

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Early 1900s

Progressive era reformers began adopting primaries for state and federal offices to steer control away from political machines and party bosses, and to return power to the voters in the nomination process. Prior to this point, party insiders nominated candidates through a caucus.


In response to the growing progressive movement, 25 of the 48 states create presidential primary laws. These laws are meant to give voters more control over the nomination of Presidential candidates and build a more transparent electoral process.


California voters pass Proposition 198, the Open Primary Act, which creates a Blanket Primary system. The measures passes with 59% of the vote.


The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Proposition 198, California's Blanket Primary System, in California Democratic Party v. Jones.


Michael Bloomberg runs for New York City mayor on the Republican and Independence tickets. He advocates for nonpartisan municipal elections, during his campaign.


Mayor Bloomberg empanels a Charter Revision Commission, which after months of public hearings, opts to place a referendum on the ballot for nonpartisan municipal elections. The entire New York City political establishment opposes the measure, and it fails to pass.


Voters in Washington State pass Initiative 872 with 60% of the vote.

California voters narrowly reject Proposition 62, a proposed nonpartisan, Top Two initiative, by a vote of 46.1% for and 53.9% against.


U.S. District Court of Western Seattle rules in favor of the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties who sued over the implementation of Top Two, nonpartisan primaries ruling Washington’s Initiative 872 unconstitutional.


Washington State brings the suit over Initiative 872 to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who upholds the previous ruling of the US District Court. Washington appeals again to the US Supreme Court.


New Hampshire Representative Pamela Manney introduces HB 196 to restrict the rights of independent voters from participating in primaries. Independentvoting.org, a 501(c)(4) organization that advocates for the rights of independent voters, spearheads a successful campaign to prevent the bill from passing.


In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Washington State’s nonpartisan, Top Two primary system. Washington holds its first primary election under the nonpartisan, Top Two system.

In Oregon, Top Two open primaries fails at the ballot box. Led by former Secretaries of State Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus, Proposition 65 is opposed by both major political parties and the public sector unions and fails to pass.  

In Idaho, the Republican Party files suit to compel the state to enact closed primaries and partisan voter registration. Independentvoting.org intervenes on behalf of a group of Idaho independents.


In Pennsylvania, Rep. Eugene DePascuale introduces legislation to allow Pennsylvania’s independent voters to participate in party primaries. Independent Pennsylvania activists mobilize grassroots support and organize a lobby day in Harrisburg, but the bill stalls in committee.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division rules invalid a referendum to enact nonpartisan municipal elections for local elections. The referendum was originally passed by the citizens of Kinston, NC, a majority African American community. Loretta King, acting Assistant Attorney General, states “the elimination of party affiliation on the ballot will likely reduce the ability of blacks to elect candidates of choice.” Independent activists and organizations mobilize media and grassroots support against the DOJ ruling, challenging the premise that black voters are only empowered through the Democratic Party. The Justice Department withdraws its objection in 2011.


California voters, along with a coalition of Gov. Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Maldonado, the AARP, the Chamber of Commerce, the California Independent Voter Project, Common Cause, Independentvoting.org and IndependentVoice.Org, pass Proposition 14, which brings Top Two open primaries to California. The minor parties block with the two major parties in opposition.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg impanels another Charter Revision Commission to explore changes to the city’s primary system. The Citizen’s Union, which opposed the measure in 2003, changes its position and endorses nonpartisan municipal elections. Despite a growing chorus of support, The Charter Revision Committee decides against putting a nonpartisan municipal election proposal to a vote on the 2010 ballot.

In South Carolina, the GOP files suit to compel the state of South Carolina to close primary elections, which have been open since the dismantling of Jim Crow in the mid 1960’s. Independentvoting.org secures defendant-intervenor status for a diverse group of organizations and individuals, including 13 African-American elected officials, independent activists, and pro-open primaries conservatives. The federal court rejects efforts by the GOP to win a summary judgment motion. The case is currently pending.



In Kentucky, Independent Kentucky Founder Michael Lewis organizes Rep. Jimmy Higdon to introduce open primaries legislation. Lewis’s lobbying efforts receive national media attention. The bill passes the Senate but loses in the Assembly.

After three years of litigation, the US District Court of Idaho rules that the Idaho GOP has the right to close their primaries.


In Arizona, a coalition of Independents, Democrats, and Republicans join forces to support Proposition 121, a nonpartisan, Top Two open primary measure. Though supported by the Arizona Republic, Prop 121 is tied up in court by a frivolous lawsuit, opposed by both parties, the League of Women Voters and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and loses 66% to 33%.

California holds its first primary election under the new nonpartisan primary system.


The Democratic Party of Hawaii challenges the state’s open primary as a violation of their First Amendment right to free association because all voters -- regardless of political party -- can participate in choosing the party's candidates for general elections. The party argues that only voters who affiliate with the Democratic Party before primaries should be able to participate.  U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright issues a written order that concludes the party failed to show the open primary is a "severe burden" on its free association rights and made assumptions about voter behavior without presenting evidence.  Hawaii’s open primary system is upheld as constitutional.  


Oregon voters reject Measure 90, a nonpartisan, Top Two ballot measure, by a 36% margin.

The EndPartisanship.org coalition, founded by the Independent Voter Project and Independentvoting.org, file a federal lawsuit challenging the taxpayer funding of closed primary elections. The New Jersey constitution states that public funds should not be expended on the activities of private organizations.

Montana GOP files suit to close primaries in the state.

Congressman John Delaney of Maryland sponsors the Open Our Democracy Act in the House. The bill includes a measure to bring nonpartisan, Top Two primaries to every congressional race in every state. The bill dies in committee.

Utah introduces and passes SB54, Count My Vote, to open the state’s dual primary/caucus system.  

After a contentious Senate race in which Incumbent Republican Thad Cochran mobilized African American voters to defeat Tea Party hopeful Chris McDaniel in the GOP Primary, Mississippi Secretary of State Hosemann commissions a study to explore improving the state’s election system. 


Count My Vote legislation in Utah faces opposition from the Republican Party as they try to stall implementation.

A group of State Senators sponsor SB 1066, a bill that establishes a closed GOP Presidential Primary in Idaho for March 2016. The bill is an attempt to boost participation from the current caucus system by implementing a closed primary using $2 million of taxpayer dollars.

State Senator Chris McDaniel introduces a bill in an attempt to close Mississippi primaries. The bill is strongly opposed and eventually dies in committee.

Mississippi Secretary of State’s Committee to Review Election Laws recommends a move to nonpartisan, Top Two primaries in Mississippi.

State Senator Dave Holt introduces a bill in the Oklahoma State Legislature to bring nonpartisan, Top Two Primaries to his state.

State Rep. Max Gruenberg introduces HB 17 to the Alaska State Legislature, his third attempt to bring nonpartisan, Top Two to state primaries.

State Rep. Mike Fortner introduces HB 2719 to the Illinois General Assembly, calling for a nonpartisan, Top Two primary.

U.S. Representative John Delaney reintroduces the Open Our Democracy Act, which calls for the use of nonpartisan primaries for all congressional races.