|Are open primaries a fair means of choosing a party's nominee? Louisiana State Law Professor John Baker and University of Iowa Political Science Professor Rebecca Morton answer your questions.|
Melens of Big Flats, NY, asks:
Why do we always seem to assume that increased voter participation is a good thing in and of itself?
An increase in voter interest can be a very good thing if voters take the time to educate themselves about the issues and candidates. In many respects however, marginally interested voters are much more susceptible to emotional or demagogic appeals. I believe that it is a disservice to the country to encourage eligible citizens to vote without emphasizing the importance of making an informed vote.
With regard to open primaries, why not a compromise system whereby all eligible voters could participate in a primary, but only the votes of registered party member would be used in the delegate process. This would allow non-party members to have an opportunity to express their support for any candidate they feel strongly about (and perhaps in doing so, influence members of that party.) At the same time it would allow members of a political party to make the final decision about who best represents their party.
What are your opinions?
First -- on whether increasing voter participation is a good idea. I do not agree with the implication that voters who are less informed necessarily make decisions they would not make if fully informed. It is definitely true that it is costly for average voters to gain detailed information about the candidates and issues and that the benefits from acquiring such information can be slight since the effect of a voter's choice on the outcome of an election is likely to be quite insignificant. Thus, the average voter is often uninformed about the details of a candidate's record and positions. But there are a lot of very low cost ways that voters can learn about candidates and many (but certainly not all) political scientists contend that voters can still make decisions almost as if they were informed even if they are not fully informed. Voters can use cues such as interest group endorsements and other simple signals to evaluate candidates. Sometimes what seems to be an emotional or demagogic appeal is really a cue to voters that imply a candidate's particular policy position on the issues.
As noted above, this is an area where political scientists disagree. While there is certainly evidence that voters use such cues in order to make decisions that are close to the same as they would make if fully informed -- there is also evidence that voters vary in their abilities to evaluate candidates's positions and policies and that voters can make systematic, predictable errors in evaluations. For example, more educated voters generally make fewer errors when asked to evaluate candidate policy positions. Moreover, voters do learn during campaigns and are more accurate in their evaluations of canddiates who are better known generally. This tends to advantage incumbents significantly, as voters are more likely to vote for known candidates over unknowns (and is a factor that I suspect has negatively affected Bradley ability to challenge Gore, for example). If we believe that voter participation should be encouraged but are worried about voters making uninformed choices, then one solution is to provide voters with easier access to political information.
Second -- Doug's suggestion is simply what California is doing for the presidential primary. As we can see from Kathleen's question, not all voters are happy with this solution and I wonder if choosing this system on purpose is useful. That is, what does it mean if the candidate receives a majority of the votes in total but a minority of party members' support (as some argue could happen with McCain in California on Super Tuesday)? Wouldn't that just turn off the supporters who crossed party lines to vote for McCain and they would feel that their participation is rejected by the party (as Kathleen seems to feel)?
Whenever anyone deplores the lack of participation in elections and/or
suggests the desirability of open primaries, I have reminded them of
the 1991 gubernatorial race in Louisiana between David Duke and Edwin
Edwards. That race produced a high degree of voter interest and participation
-- driven by fear. The contest generated nationwide interest due to
the prospect that a former Klansman might become the governor of a State.
The most memorable and probably most influential slogan of the campaign
was one that came from those who supported neither candidate: "Vote
for the Crook. It's Important."
As you note, various compromise primary systems are possible. The system you have described is that of California, which Kathleen criticized in Question No. 2. In choosing a system it is well to appreciate that, generally, the tendency of an open-primary system is to produce fringe candidates. It is true that a party primary system can also do so where there is a large field of candidates and the system provides no run-off between the two with the highest vote total in the primary. When the party's fringe candidate loses the election, however, the party regulars predictably react by attempting to prevent a similar situation in the next election. Remember the party reactions after the Goldwater and McGovern presidential losses in landslides. Parties have an institutional interest in avoiding candidates who cannot carry the general election. In an open primary system, on the other hand, the candidates have less need for or loyalty to the party and do not necessarily have any interest beyond the one election in which they are competing.
Although the American two-party system has been relatively weak from a party point of view, it has historically served the country well by producing moderation in politics. In Europe, the parliamentary systems encourage multiple parties because each can gain influence in coalition governments. Consider the current controversy over the Austrian coalition government. In the U.S., the coalitions come together within the party because the constitutional system -- fortunately -- does not allow for such coalition-governments.