Primary Elections Are Under Attack


Photo by Tony Webster | Unsplash

The 2022 primary season has seen many twists and turns, upsets, medical emergencies, shocking TV ads, and scandals – like Democratic PACs spending $45 million in Illinois, Maryland, California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania to help Trump allies win the Republican nomination. But one feature of the 2022 primaries has received no attention: the emerging effort being led by Trump-aligned legislators to prevent millions of Americans from voting in primaries at all.  

The Trump wing of the Republican party hates the fact that in 20 states, voters don’t register to vote by party.  Anyone can request a Republican ballot on primary day.  That infuriates right wing activists who want only the faithful voting in GOP contests.  So, they’ve decided to do something about it.  

In Georgia, state representatives David Clark and Colton Moore announced their intention to introduce closed primary legislation next session. The Alabama GOP passed a resolution to do the same.  Lawmakers in Missouri added an amendment to a photo ID bill to institute partisan voter registration, the first step towards closing that state’s primaries.  President Trump backed a failed effort to enact closed primaries in Montana this year, but local supporters have vowed to keep pushing.  Legislative efforts are getting underway in Tennessee, Wyoming, and Texas.  Up to 22 million independent voters could be shut out of the primaries entirely if those legislators succeed, and many more Democratic Party voters could be left voiceless.

Do you think politicians in Texas and Tennessee are conservative?  You haven’t seen anything yet.  If partisan voter registration and closed primaries are enacted, politicians will quickly grasp that the way to win a primary is to be the most outrageous, the most right wing, the reddest of meat.  

Many of these legislative efforts will succeed unless something is done.  If not, when the 2024 presidential primaries come along, millions of voters may find themselves shut out of democracy.  Closed primary “trial balloon” bills have been introduced in 15 states over the past decade.  My organization, Open Primaries, defeated these efforts, but most were exploratory and introduced without a plan nor backing from party leadership.  

This is something different.  

Conservative Republicans have made “crossover voting” public enemy number one.  They’ve convinced many in the political mainstream that crossover voting is meddling that undermines democracy. The broad voting rights community is mostly silent, and some even agree with the far right that voters should stay in their lanes.  So, while Trump-aligned Republicans are clamoring for more restrictive rules that would seriously impact voter mobility, they are doing so in an environment of little opposition.  

Since when does democratic participation involve staying in your lane? 

The Democratic Party is compromised because it is Democrats in Nevada and Oregon who are leading the charge against efforts to enact open primaries.   And it is Democrats in New Jersey who are preparing to pass a bill to make it more difficult for the state’s 2.4 million independents to vote in primaries.  

What do we do?  

First, we recognize that those pushing for closed primaries are a minority of a minority.  However, that gives them a huge advantage because the system we have set up – starting with the primaries – gives “minority of minority” factions huge influence.  Don’t underestimate the ability of a 5% faction of uber-partisan Republicans to dictate the election laws for an entire state.  

Second, we need to build new coalitions of the 95% that can stand up to partisan warriors and insist that our democracy is bigger and more important than they are.  These coalitions need to be built and need to include everyone.  

Finally, we can’t just play defense.  Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington state have all abolished party primaries altogether.  They told the parties “The people control the primaries, not the parties.  Everyone gets to vote for whomever they want and the most popular candidates advance.” We need to push hard for nonpartisan primaries every chance we get.  Nevadans will vote on this in November, just like Alaskans and Floridians did in 2020.  

In Million Dollar Baby, Clint Eastwood told Hillary Swank during a break in a fight that her opponent was “younger, stronger, and more experienced. Now, what are you gonna do about it?”  I wish we had Clint Eastwood in our corner because Trump’s Republicans mean business.  They are going to do everything they can to mold an electoral system that helps, not the country, but themselves in 2023.  And the Democratic Party is going to sit back and let them do it.  The central question is, do we the people have the guts and the stamina to do something about it?  

John Opcyke

John Opdycke is the Founder and President of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization. He is one of the country’s leading experts on primary elections and primary election reform. An activist and strategist with 25 years of experience working in independent, alternative and reform politics, he is the co-author of The Next Great Migration: The Rise of Independent Voters.

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