Open Primary Would Close Doors to Voter Choice and Participation

California's Proposition 14 would shut out minor political parties

“The most natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself, is that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow-creatures, and of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty. No legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

California’s state government is suffering from fiscal disarray and a lack of leadership in Sacramento. Voters are justifiably frustrated, as evidenced by Governor Schwarzenegger’s 24% approval rating, and the State Legislature’s even more frigid 11% approval rating. Desperate for reform-any reform-some have looked to switching to an open primary voting system to address the state’s problems.

To be sure, California government is broken, the state’s finances are in shambles, and there is plenty of blame to be shared by both major parties. Implementing an “open primary” system will do nothing to fix the state’s problems, however, and will only trample upon individuals’ freedom of association and further disenfranchise voters.

The open primary measure, Proposition 14, was put on the ballot after Republican and then-State Senator (now Lieutenant Governor) Abel Maldonado crossed party lines to cast the deciding vote in favor of a budget deal last year that included the state’s largest ever tax increase. The price for Maldonado’s vote was an agreement to place a constitutional amendment to implement an open primary system for congressional, statewide, and legislative races before voters. Under an open, or “top-two,” primary, voters choose from all qualified candidates, regardless of party affiliation, on the primary ballot and the highest two vote getters move on to the general election ballot.

A top-two primary system would represent a significant attack on one’s freedom of association, however. This should be reason enough to oppose the measure. By dictating how a political party must determine its nominees and allowing those who are not part of a particular group to determine that group’s own rules, the top-two system violates party members’ freedom of association.

Political parties are nothing more than private groups. The Republican and Democratic parties may be larger than others, but they are nonetheless private organizations and entitled to establish their own rules to select their candidates for political office, even if that means not allowing people outside their group to influence those nominations. The government has no more right to dictate how political parties select their nominees than it does to determine how the local Rotary club, Chamber of Commerce, or religious organization chooses its leaders.

The open primary system would additionally result in less voter choice and participation. While some have argued that the top-two primary would increase voter participation, quite the opposite is true. Voter participation would decrease-and voter apathy and disenfranchisement would increase-since third-party voters, and, indeed, anyone not wowed by the two candidates that made the general election, would have little incentive to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Minor parties would effectively be shut out of the general election entirely, as their candidates would likely rarely, if ever, crack the top two places, which, because of ballot access rules, would make it practically impossible to even qualify to field candidates in future elections. In the State of Louisiana’s 35 years of experience with the top-two system, for example, not one minor party candidate has ever made it onto the general election ballot. It should thus come as no surprise that the Libertarian Party, Green Party, American Independent Party, and Peace and Freedom Party have joined the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in strongly opposing Prop. 14. Moreover, even write-in candidates would be precluded under the open primary system.

Oftentimes, because of “stronghold” districts created due to both natural geographical concentrations of people with similar political outlooks and unnatural groupings of voters through gerrymandering, voters would end up having to choose between two candidates from the same party in the general election. A recent report by the Center for Governmental Studies estimates that over one-third of all state legislative and congressional races would likely face this result.

While gerrymandering, ballot access rules, and the exclusion of third-party candidates from political debates are all serious problems that should be addressed, voters are still ultimately responsible for the representatives they elect. Given the current state of affairs and lack of political courage and leadership in California government, perhaps it is finally time to “throw the bums out” en masse. Voters disenfranchised with the way things work-or, more accurately, don’t work-in Sacramento may wish to seriously consider supporting third-party candidates, work to help the two major parties to select better candidates, or form new political parties altogether.

Adam B. Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.