Party down: Open primaries to all, California-style primaries would ease Albany deadlock and allow independent voters a greater voice in elections. - Open Primaries
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Posted by John Opdycke on September 14, 2015 at 2:30 PM

Party down: Open primaries to all

California-style primaries would ease Albany deadlock and allow independent voters a greater voice in elections.

This Op-Ed was written by Open Primaries President John Opdycke and published in Crain's New York Business.

September 13, 2015


California was for years a symbol of legislative paralysis, partisan brinkmanship and Soviet-style elections. Special-interest groups exerted outsize influence. From 2000 to 2009, only two Assembly and congressional incumbents lost; both were under criminal investigation. Sound familiar, New Yorkers?

But things have changed since 2010, when the state’s voters made primary elections nonpartisan, with the top two vote-getters facing off in the general election.

The New York political establishment has stymied such a reform here with dire warnings, but now we know the impact in California was swift and positive. Its elections are now the most competitive in the nation, and the legislature tackles difficult issues and passes budgets on time. Nonpartisan coalitions are commonplace.

California no longer discriminates against independents, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. They can vote in the first round of elections because all candidates are on the same ballot.

Democrats still dominate. But under a nonpartisan system, control exerted over them by the Democratic Party is much weaker. They have more capacity to build coalitions and engage with voters, policy groups and non-Democratic colleagues. They represent their constituents, not the special-interest groups that make up the inner core of the party. The same holds true for Republicans.

California politics has been transformed. All voters vote, and elected officials have more freedom to legislate. Could this work in New York? Absolutely.

Left-right coalitions are vital here. Criminal-justice and education reform, police-community relations, economic development and other issues require constituencies to come together across party lines.

But New York’s "members-only" primary system impedes that. Candidates who want to bring Demo­crats, Republicans and independents together have nowhere to go.

With nonpartisan primaries, we’d see candidates representing new coalitions instead of carrying water for party loyalists.

New York state has 3 million independent voters. The current system renders them second-class citizens, barring them from elections funded by their tax dollars.

Excluding independent voters and forcing elected officials to pander to their parties’ power bases ensures a huge gulf between New Yorkers and our representatives. Policy innovation cannot flourish. Ideas cannot be tested. Ineffective programs cannot be retooled.

Michael Bloomberg got a referendum for nonpartisan elections on the ballot in 2003. We got slaughtered. Why? The political establishment campaigned against it, realizing it would take power from the parties and give it to voters.

But times are changing. Some New York politicians—including Sen. Charles Schumer—have joined the cause. Let’s bring the California model to New York.

John Opdycke is president of Open ­Primaries, a national election-reform group.

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published this page in Open Primaries in the News 2015-09-14 14:30:34 -0400