In defense of exclusive primaries

Primaries are a good thing, and should remain under the control of the political parties. While Indiana technically has a “closed” primary, the enforcement is nonexistent, allowing people to cross back and forth or (worse) monkeywrench the other party’s primary. Now comes a Herald-Times editorial arguing for an open primary system – one that would defeat the entire purpose of primary elections.

As a Republican, I have no business deciding who the Democratic nominee for Mayor will be. I am not going to be voting for the Democratic candidate, and that decision is best made by Democratic voters. Note that I said Democratic “voters” instead of Democratic party activists. After all, party activists are a small subset of the primary voters who choose the nominees. This is why the Herald-Times’ argument for allowing voters to participate “whether they are active in a party or not” is a classic Straw Man logical fallacy.

(See previous articles from April 27, 2011 and April 21, 2011.)

I am not sure why the H-T is complaining that the primary system somehow violates people’s privacy. There are many good reasons why someone’s election participation is public record. One reason is it protects against voter fraud: It is important to have the voter list be verifiable. Everyone can look up who voted in a primary or general election. Even if someone votes in a primary, it does not mean that person will vote for all – or even any – of that party’s general election nominees. When someone votes – though not for whom they voted – should always be public record.

The primary election already results in the top vote-getter for each party making it to the November general election, though there are two separate pools of voters instead of only one. That means the nomination is already decided by the voters. This is why, nationwide, there have been many candidates who have been chosen by voters when the political parties would have chosen someone else. One big example is Barack Obama, who most likely would not have been the Democratic nominee for President in 2008 if that was decided only at a convention instead of primary votes.

Some have argued for nominating conventions instead of taxpayer-funded primary elections. The problem with this is it does not give the voters a choice of who will represent them on the ballot. The other problem is that party insiders may choose a poor candidate, while winning a primary election at least demonstrates that candidate has the support of the party’s voters. There have been a number of elections where the nominees would have been very different if chosen by the party establishment instead of the voters. And while not having taxpayers fund a primary sounds good on paper, it is never going to happen. You will never see that choice taken away from voters.

The primary system is a good one. All it asks is that the voters who pick the party’s nominees pick one party or the other. Having an open primary where all voters can choose both parties’ nominees is an invitation for mischief and severely dilutes what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat. Strong political parties, and clear differences between the parties, is good for democracy. It should remain that way, and separate primaries ensure that. If anything, Indiana’s closed primary system should be more restrictive, not less.

4 thoughts on “In defense of exclusive primaries

  1. Mr. Tibbs,

    I am curious as to your thoughts with respect to a “top two” system, whereby the top two “vote getters” in a primary, regardless of party, run against each other in the general election.

    Perhaps that would enable a somewhat more conservative elected class in Bloomington or Indianapolis, and a somewhat more liberal elected class in Martinsville or Fishers.

    As things sit now, for most of this state, the real competitive election is the primary… an election wherein a fraction of the voters who vote in a general election vote.

    Your thoughts?


  2. I would be completely opposed to it.

    It would negate the entire reason for political parties to exist.

    Would parties be allowed to nominate their own candidates under this system? Would there even be party labels? Would the parties be forced to accept someone from the other party? If that's the case, why not abolish the primary entirely, and have everyone run on the general election ballot?

    It would also allow (and encourage) monkeywrenching the other party. The parties would “win” by recruiting fake candidates to run under the label of the other party, thereby by diluting the votes that would go to the other party's candidates.

    Republicans could do this, and then get 2 Republicans on the ballot who could not win in the general election if either faced a Democrat. Or vice versa.


  3. I think you miss my point. If you live in an area that is strongly Republican, and two Republican candidates receive more votes in the primary than anyone else, then the general election is Republican v. Republican, and each candidate then actually has to convince the general electorate, not just his/her primary electorate, that he/she is the best candidate.

    The upshot of this is to make the general election competitive. As you know, in most districts in this state, the primary election is the real contest. I fail to see what your opposition is to this, unless you prefer to have increased polarization as more and more districts become gerrymeandered into “safe” seats for each party.


  4. “then the general election is Republican v. Republican, and each candidate then actually has to convince the general electorate, not just his/her primary electorate, that he/she is the best candidate.”


    The big problem with this is that it amounts to banning the Democratic Party from having a candidate on the general election ballot at all. Or vice versa in a strongly Democratic area.

    I agree gerrymandering is a huge problem, but the solution to that is to reform the district-drawing process instead of completely upending the election process.

    If we're going to go with a totally open primary, then it would be better to ban political parties from having candidates in local races altogether and instead have elections be nonpartisan – like school board races currently are.

    I wouldn't support that either and I would rather school board races be partisan races. But it's better than a totally open primary.


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