Here's a foolproof way to increase political participation - Open Primaries
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Posted by Kellie Ryan on July 30, 2015 at 5:12 PM

Here's a foolproof way to increase political participation

The fastest growing segment of voters in both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania as a whole are independents.  

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that independents are less engaged than their partisan brethren. 

They are referred to by most pundits as "fence sitters," "leaners" and other creative terms that highlight their essential wishy-washiness.    

Never has conventional wisdom been so wrong. 

In Philadelphia, for example, independent voters are highly educated and engaged politically. 

A recent survey of 346 unaffiliated or independent Philadelphians conducted by Open Primaries revealed that less than 5% of independents registered that way because they "don't follow politics." 

Eighty-seven percent of independents know that their choice to remain outside the party system precludes them from voting in primaries -- the only meaningful race in the majority of local and state contests. 

Yet they register as independents because they want to protest the partisan status quo.  By refusing to join a political party, they are quietly asserting,  "this system must change."  

What needs to change? 

For starters, the closed primary system.  This outdated system, which is in effect in Pennsylvania and many other states, excludes the fastest growing sector of the electorate. 

It is also a significant contributor to the unproductive partisanship that grips Congress and most state legislatures. This system isn't fair, doesn't work, and incentives "party first" behavior from our representatives. 

The same survey found that 73 percent of voters in Philadelphia think there are flaws in the closed primary system and 88 percent of independents favor changing to something more open, like a "Top Two" nonpartisan approach.

When candidates participate in nonpartisan electoral systems—as they do in California, Nebraska, Washington, and most municipalities across the country—they campaign to all the voters from the onset of the campaign. 

They build coalitions.  They talk to, and listen to, the diverse people that they aim to represent. 

But when people run for office in a closed primary partisan system, they are forced to participate in a process that rewards party loyalty, not inclusivity nor coalition building.  That's why we end up with legislative bodies that are more accountable to partisan insiders than to their constituents.  It's structural.   

Here's how it works. In a Top Two, nonpartisan process, all the candidates appear on one ballot, every voter votes in the primary election, and the top two candidates, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

Candidates appeal to all voters, rather than just the narrow base of party activists. 

This system empowers independent voters, gives more freedom to Democratic and Republican voters, and allows for the emergence of legislatures that answer to the voters and not the parties.

Nebraska uses this nonpartisan system to elect members of their state legislature, and they have the most productive, issue-oriented and innovative legislature in the country. Witness the recent left/right coalition that came together to abolish the death penalty. 

California adopted the nonpartisan system in 2010, and the impact was immediate. 3 million independent voters instantly given their voting rights. 

Lawmakers began to emerge from their partisan trenches to do what they were paid to do – legislate. They even ended the California tradition of passing late budgets. 

Nonpartisan election systems work in California and Nebraska.  And the nonpartisan approach is looking better and better to a diverse coalition of democracy activists and issue advocates who are tired of an exclusionary electoral system that isn't fair and doesn't work.

In many of the 24 states that allow initiative and referendum, open primaries advocates are using direct democracy to advance nonpartisan primaries.  In Pennsylvania and other states that do not grant their citizens this right, we are galvanizing support for Congressman John Delaney's Open Our Democracy Act, which would enact Top Two nonpartisan primaries for all Congressional races nationwide.  

Our message is straightforward. If we change the system to empower the voters, we will get representatives who represent us, not small but highly organized special interest groups. 

Independents, far from being "fence-sitters," are at the forefront of this movement for reform. 

Independents like Jenn Bullock, the co-founder and chair of Independent Pennsylvanians (, an organization which has supported open primaries legislation in Harrisburg and in 2014 led a protest of exclusionary primary rules outside polls throughout Philadelphia. 

So the next time you meet an independent, don't turn up your nose and accuse them of "sitting on the sidelines."  Ask them about how you can get involved in the movement to change the system.  

John Opdycke is the President and founder of Open Primaries, a national activist and strategy center for the growing primary reform movement.  [email protected]

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published this page in Open Primaries in the News 2015-07-30 17:12:51 -0400