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Freedom of Choice: Nonpartisan Primary Elections

By Tom Walsh 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and University of Kentucky Law Professor and author Joshua
Douglas speak together about voting rights and participation at the University of Michigan.

Rising concern about America’s polarized politics has prompted many U.S. states to make changes in how primary elections are conducted, leading to confusing terminology about the various voting systems.   

Michigan is one of 20 states that use an “open partisan primary” in which any voter can choose to participate in the party primary of his or her choice for congressional and state-level offices.    

Seventeen states use a closed primary system in which only registered party members can participate in the nomination of party candidates.     

Ten states have some form of a hybrid partisan system between open and closed, while California and Washington state have nonpartisan “top-two” primaries where all candidates appear on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters – regardless of party affiliation – advance to the general election. Louisiana has a so-called “jungle primary” on the same day as a general election, followed by a runoff of the top two finishers if no candidate gets 50% or more of the vote.   

In Michigan, people need not select which party’s primary to vote in until election day, but each party’s candidates are in a separate column on the ballot. The Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian parties all fielded slates in 2018 – and voting in more than one invalidates the ballot.   

Proponents of open primaries say they boost voter participation by not excluding people who don’t want partisan labels, and who are more likely to vote for moderate candidates rather than ideological extremes.   

Opponents, however, say closed primaries provide more incentive to formally join the political process and become more involved in the voting process.    

Joshua Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor and author of a new book “Vote for the US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future,” favors open over closed primaries.   

“In a system where you have a closed low-turnout primary that decides the nominees, the most polarized people tend to vote in primaries and you have more extreme candidates on either side winning their general elections.,” Douglas says. “They have less ability to compromise.”    

That said, he understands the motivation of closed-primary proponents.   

The major parties, he says, “want to be able to control the process and select who they want. Especially in places where one party has much more control, they’re very resistant to allowing independents or the opposite party to choose who moves on to a general election.”   

That’s what happened in 2012, for example, in a California district when six candidates for U.S. Congress – four Democrats and two Republicans – faced off on an open primary ballot. The two Republicans, in a traditionally Democratic district, advanced to the general election because the Democratic vote was split up among more people.   

Nationwide, a major factor driving efforts to change primary voting rules is the bloc of independent voters, unaffiliated with either of the two major parties.   

“I’ve been an unaffiliated voter my entire career, so I’ve been a staunch advocate for primary reform,” says Amber McReynolds, former elections director in Denver, and now executive director for the National Vote at Home Institute.     

“The traditional way of segmenting voters doesn’t work like it used to. More Americans are identifying as independent,” she adds. “I think the other issue is that all taxpayers, regardless of your political persuasion, pay for these elections. So, if the parties want to exclude people then they should foot the bill for the election. That’s why Washington and California and a lot of western states have opened up their primaries and have not required party registration.”   

That said, McReynolds does see pitfalls to the top-two primary system and is interested in exploring other variations such as a top-three or top-four combined with ranked choice voting – “something other than whoever has the most money and can get on TV the most will be the top two.” 

Tom Walsh is a former Detroit Free Press business editor and columnist.