OPEN PRIMARIES NOW

The just concluded primary election of the County Executive in Montgomery County, Maryland provides an apt lesson in why party primaries should be open to all voters, not just the declared members of a political party.

In a very tight race that concluded last Sunday night, liberal candidate Marc Elrich beat Potomac businessman David Blair by just 80 votes. The two candidates each received about 37,000 votes. That may sound like a lot for a county election, but if Elrich goes on to beat his Republican opponent in November (and in heavily blue Montgomery county that’s almost certain) it will mean he was nominated by just six percent of the county’s registered voters, and 3.5 percent of its 1.04 million residents.

Think about that. A position that holds considerable influence over the county’s economic development and social welfare spending will have been effectively elected by less than four percent of its residents. I have no doubt that Elrich is a passionate, sincere public servant. But with the support of fewer than four percent of the county’s residents, is he a fair reflection of the views of the county’s majority, and can he faithfully represent them?

That’s just one of the problems with closed party primaries. Because primaries are restricted to party members, they tend to attract the most committed activists. For Democratic primaries, that means more liberal and progressive voters turn out. (Despite spending $3 million of his own money, Blair, the moderate, was beaten by the liberal Elrich in a field of eight candidates.) Republican primaries, on the other hand, are dominated by the far-right and conservative wing. Moderate voters turn out in much lower numbers in both primaries, and independent and unenrolled voters are barred from voting altogether.

This system of voting – a closed primary that attracts the activist wings of both parties – is one of the reason why our politics today have become so polarized and divisive. The system almost guarantees that the candidate who is nominated appeals to the extreme ends of their parties, and not the more moderate middle.

If the primary were open, where independents like me and even Republicans were allowed to vote, the outcome of the Montgomery County Executive race might have been different. I’m willing to bet that Blair, as the more centrist candidate who even received the endorsement of The Washington Post, would have won easily. Already, a former Democratic County Council member, Nancy Floreen, is considering running for County Executive as an independent because she believes, as many others do, that the result does not represent the will of the people.

Adding insult to injury, the primaries conducted each year by political parties – which are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution – have become so normalized they are subsidized by taxpayers. So even though I can’t vote in the primary, I’m helping to pay for all the election officials, ballot counters and printing costs. If the two parties insist on retaining the closed primary system, is it too much to ask that they pay for it?

But a better, fairer solution would be to open the primaries up to non-party members. This would ensure that the liberal and conservative activists from each party don’t yield more influence than their numbers.

This solution doesn’t apply to just county elections, but also to national races. Twenty-seven states have closed primaries for presidential elections, and 15 states – including Maryland – have closed primaries for congressional and state-level elections. The extreme divisiveness and paralysis we see every day in Congress is related tin part to the closed primary system as well as to the rigged gerrymandering of Congressional districts. If we want elected officials that truly represent the views and desires of their citizens, we first have to turn out and vote in greater numbers. But we can start by reforming our election system: open up party primaries and end gerrymandering. These two steps alone would go a long way toward getting the government that we deserve, and one truly works for us.

Neal Simon for U.S. Senate