|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.|
Tornabell III of Boynton Beach, FL, asks:
NO open primaries. However, if the people want open primaries, then let the popular vote count and NO delegates, NO convention. Straight popular vote. Each state is counted strictly by number of votes, highest vote-getter in each party run off at the general election. Would this system work instead?
First, it is true that conventions are becoming largely party advertisements and for many years have ceased to serve as the place where candidates are chosen. This began to happen long before primaries dominated the presidential selection process as delegates began to commit themselves prior to the convention and candidates were chosen on "first ballots" as early as the 1950s. Even so, the national party probably benefits from the convention as it is the one chance for the diverse members to truly interact and discuss issues as a group and I do not think it would be discontinued even if the parties were to adopt your system.
Many have advocated moving to a national primary as you describe. Proponents contend that the current system advantages the states that hold their primaries early and who are not generally representative of the electorate as a whole. Moreover, the trend of front-loading primaries earlier and earlier in the season is making campaigns too long. One national primary held in June would shorten the campaign season and reduce the advantages of early primary states.
More realistically is an issue that the parties have had to deal with -- that is we don't even currently elect the president by popular vote but through the complex electoral college system. Should states then have more weight if they have more electoral votes?
Finally, while some advocate a national primary, others argue for a less drastic change, a rotating regional primary system where the country votes on four separate dates by region. Their contention is that it is too costly for candidates to campaign nationally and that regional contests allow for candidates with less initial support to build up coalitions in regions that can then be used to attract more support (political momentum). Whether presidential primaries evolve into such a regional system or one national primary, the questions about open versus closed primaries remain. Given the Supreme Court's decision with respect to Wisconsin in 1982, it is up to the national parties and not the individual states to choose whether these primaries are closed or not since the contest is national in scope. However, Congress could conceivably choose to regulate the participation in a national primary as it also regulates voter registration laws in federal elections.
Ernest, your suggestion to eliminate every element of the candidate-selection process except the primary voting (whether party or open primaries) is similar to proposals to eliminate the electoral college in the actual presidential election. Both present similar problems.
Both the proponents and opponents of the Constitution agreed that the people of the United States should not be treated as one large mass. For that reason, the states retain a large amount of autonomy in our federal system. Even though the power of the states has been restricted by constitutional amendment and otherwise in the control they can exert over elections, they still do retain a certain degree of control. That is why the different states and the parties in each state can decide on the methods to be used for choosing those who will vote for a party's candidate. Your proposal would require more national control by the parties and, arguably, by the federal government for it to be implemented.
Under your proposal, parties would not be able to give states where the party is strong a greater voice in choosing the candidate. Not only is such a practice an incentive and reward for state and local parties to work for the election of the national candidate, it simply makes good sense to please those voters who are already inclined to vote for the party.
Your proposal would increase candidate reliance on mass media at the expense of personal contact -- especially in small states. If all votes are lumped in a national total without regard to the state from which they come, the candidates would be well-advised to allocate more of their time and resources to media-buys in big markets. In fact, this is what is happening this year with more primaries bunched together on two successive Tuesdays. Some states that in the past would have been visited by the candidates will not receive a visit or will receive fewer visits. Candidates with less funding would need to concentrate on the East Coast and California where they will get national media attention they would not get in the Midwest.
Then there is the very practical problem of voter fraud. As long as convention delegates or electoral votes are determined state by state, voter fraud in one state affects only the vote of the support in that state. If all votes are lumped together, any and every vote stolen anywhere affects the overall vote total necessary to win the nomination.