Democratizing Democracy: The Case for Open Primaries

Mario Osuna
February 23, 2023

While the two-party system is in no way unique to the United States, it is engrained in American political culture, consciousness, and legislation to an arguably unparalleled degree. In fact, even internal primaries for major parties are publicly financed and administered. Of course, not all primaries have the same form or shape – and these structures can vary dramatically depending on the state you live in.

Broadly speaking, primary elections can be either closed or open. As the names suggest, this means that primaries are either exclusive to people who have declared partisan affiliation, or open to the public. It’s not a balanced split across the country: 30 states have some form of open primaries, a format particularly beneficial for American democracy, as it fundamentally answers the shortcomings of a strictly closed two-party system in our current hyper-polarized political environment.

It's no secret that political polarization is, largely, a structural problem. It follows, then, that it can be addressed – at least in part – by adopting a broadly and nationally standardized open primary framework. In today’s tribalistic landscape, moderate positions are too often undermined by a prejudiced electoral system; political scientists and scholars note that candidates who lean towards the center of the political spectrum are virtually always outvoted by more radical alternatives, even when they may share many of their electorate’s same ideological positions. Closed primaries add to this effect by creating a “resonance box,” where both parties seek to distance themselves from one another and pander to their established base, disenfranchising moderate voters and further exacerbating already-dangerous levels of polarization.

Opening primaries to voters outside the registered membership of a party is a tried-and-true approach to “normalizing” the spectrum towards more moderate, consensus-seeking positions that help bridge the ideological gaps in favor of public interest. An open model in which independent voters can participate works in favor of the parties as well, as the ability to voice support for certain candidates can both attract undecided voters and build stronger coalitions.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of trust. Allowing independent voters or even dissatisfied voters to participate in open primaries can ensure that elections are not a matter of choosing the “less bad” candidate. It’s a direct fight against the resonance box effect – open primaries create more democratically participative processes, attracting independent voters to partake in elections in which they might normally be locked out of.

Currently, millions of unaffiliated voters live in states where they are not able to participate in primary elections – even though completely closed primaries are only technically the status quo in nine states. And these states might ring a bell – Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania are just a few highlighted on this list (as states that have determined the outcomes of recent general elections). Opening primaries in states like these could make them both less contentious and more competitive simultaneously, as candidates build more support and even garner higher turnout rates.

We often talk about how other nations can learn from American experiments in participatory democracy, but in this case, the United States has a lot to learn from the mistakes of its counterparts overseas. In Spain, for instance, recent internal issues in the centrist Citizens Party have been the sequel to disastrous, prolonged image and policy problems – its leadership has been unable to recover since former figurehead Albert Rivera Díaz stepped away from his role in the party. Consequently, more extreme organizations from either sides of the spectrum have now taken the political stage. Why is the party’s leadership so weak?

Surprise, surprise: The Spanish Citizens Party chooses its leadership using internal elections, where only registered members can vote. And now, as the Citizens Party finds itself unable to siphon moderate voters from its competition following several damaging administrative decisions, the nation has again fragmented into several aggressively antagonistic parties representing the extremes of the political spectrum.

But consider Argentina, where open primaries have proven successful: The Argentinian electoral system includes Open, Simultaneous and Obligatory Primaries (PASO). These primary elections are publicly funded – as they are in the United States – but involve just one single event where everyone can participate to produce candidates. Under this system, everyone casts a single vote for the nominee of their preference without any commitment to party affiliation prior to or after the election. A system like this promises fair distribution in public funds for primaries, guarantees standardized equality in regulations for primaries, allows moderate voters to cross party lines, and ensures a first round of agreements to confirm candidates that represent the broad majority of their constituency.

As the United States navigates turbulent political times, society craves a break from polarization. Cooling down the environment is not only a matter of thinking critically about the content and discourse we follow every day, but improving the actual democratic electoral system we ourselves have built.

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