Open Primaries? How About No Primaries?
Pennsylvania’s primary elections are over, and the Republican Party is in just as big a mess as when the campaigning began. One race is resolved, at least, with State Senator Doug Mastriano winning the gubernatorial nomination with 44 percent of the vote. The other race, for the U.S. Senate, is still in doubt, as Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick appear headed to a recount, each claiming about 31 percent of the primary vote.
Among the viable Republican candidates for the governor’s office, Mastriano was the most extreme, and his victory has led some observers to call again for open primaries. In the Democratic gubernatorial contest, far-left John Fetterman’s win over moderate Conor Lamb also suggests a primary electorate out of step with the mainstream – though Fetterman, unlike Mastriano, did command a majority of his party’s voters.
Would independent voters produce a more moderate, more electable nominee? It’s possible – though we should not make the common mistake of confusing “independent” with “moderate.” But before considering whether open primaries would work, we need to consider whether they should work.
Why do we have primaries in the first place? A Progressive–Era innovation, they have been around so long and have been run by states for so long that we forget, sometimes, that the primary election is how a political party chooses who it will nominate for an office. Mastriano winning the Republican primary means that he is the choice of the Republican Party. Non-Republicans should no more have a say in that process than non-Catholics should have a say in who is elected Pope.
Candidates gain endorsements from many sources, but the most important one comes at the beginning – selection by the voters of their own party. Why should people who are not even a member of that party be able to influence that process? In other countries, parties assess dues from their members, but Americans can join political parties free of charge. For no cost, any registered voter can have a say in whom a party nominates. Why should voters be relieved of even that minor barrier to entry, just so that they can help determine the decisions of an organization that they won’t bother to join?
But if open primaries are not the solution to what seems to be a broken system, then what is?
Perhaps the best course would be to return to the system that predated primaries: party conventions. This is how candidates were selected from the time modern political parties arose in the United States, and it continues to be the method in a few states. Virginia Republicans nominated their pick for governor by convention in 2011 – and they did a fine job of choosing an electable candidate. In special elections, too, party leaders often pick a candidate rather than prolonging the process by holding a primary and then a general election to fill a vacancy. This happened recently in the 5th State Senate district special election in Philadelphia. Though Democrats managed to mess up even that simple process, they eventually won the race.
Minor parties also use conventions to select their candidates; so does nearly every political party around the world. Rather than spending taxpayer money on an election that benefits only themselves, the parties must pay their own way. And they do! In Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, and nearly any other democracy you can think of, this is how a party’s nominees are chosen.
Critics warn that going back to the old ways could lead to backroom dealings and insider advantage – but the good news is that it also makes it easy to start a rival party. If your party is small, your convention is cheap. You can run a convention by conference call, like the Prohibition Party did in 2016 and 2020 (yes, that party still exists). The state-run primary system enforces a major-party duopoly. Returning to the convention system would force parties to pay for their own nominating processes, thus leveling the playing field a bit for independents and minor-party candidates.
Progressive–Era reformers thought they were returning power to the people by letting states interfere in party business. Instead, they wound up confusing the people, making them think of primary elections as a “first round” that precedes the general election. Returning to a convention system would let parties be parties again, help party members reach consensus instead of shouting past one another, and enable a party collectively to affirm its vision in choosing candidates who share its values.
And if you don’t like a party’s vision? Start your own party.
Kyle Sammin is the editor-at-large at Broad + Liberty and co-host of the “Conservative Minds” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleSammin.