Closed Primaries Give Voters Clearer Choices in Elections

There is ongoing debate in our commonwealth and nation about open and closed primaries. It always heats up as we near a presidential primary season.

Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state, meaning only those voters registered as either Republicans or Democrats may vote to select their party’s nominees for the general election. In states with open primaries, registered independent voters are allowed to participate, too.

Some advocate that Pennsylvania adopt an open primary to promote democracy and accommodate the growing number of independent voters. However, an open primary system would seriously weaken our two-party system.

The simple fact is that closed primaries work very well. We have depended upon a two-party system from the beginning of our nation, even though the U.S. Constitution does not address it. The Republican and Democratic parties have regularly traded the role of governing on local, state and federal levels.

We need parties to advance ideals and principles that a majority of citizens can coalesce behind at times of general elections. Majority rule sustains the rule of law. Hence, our strong two-party system is essential. Registered party members voting in a closed primary have the assurance of knowing that whichever candidate prevails will largely share the fundamental principles of their party.

In an open primary, choices become more a matter of popularity and less of principle. Consequently, campaigns are less of a grass-roots effort by party members and are more concentrated on spending money for ads, mailings and paid workers. Thus, the candidates without clear party credentials are advantaged by the vote of independents, and the party faithful can be divided or dissuaded at the time of the general election. More nefariously, open primaries have been used in other states as a tool to weaken one side’s slate rather than to choose good candidates.

The chief appeal of an open primary is its egalitarian emphasis. But that is an illusion. Those who register without major-party affiliation exclude themselves from being able to choose a party’s nominees. They voluntarily, and with full knowledge, give up a vote in the primary (with the exception of ballot questions). In return, they are spared the effort that comes with forming a major-party platform and selecting its nominees.

Many unaffiliated voters say, “I vote for the best candidate, not for a party.” That’s no doubt true, but it’s not the same thing as full participation in the electoral process. It is their right to approach the process that way, but it is not evidence of greater virtue or political acumen and should not be rewarded with a vote in the primary.

Independents are customarily wary of the parties and often don’t serve as campaign workers or hold fundraisers for candidates. Those who do the yeoman work in the trenches — knocking on doors, making phone calls, raising money, putting up yard signs — deserve the right to choose their party’s candidates, without the skewing of the primary by independents.

Independents who want to help choose who appears on the general-election ballot have alternatives. The easiest way is to become a registered member of a party. They can also sign nomination petitions to get nonpartisan candidates on the general-election ballot.

Closed primaries are better for the general electorate. Both sides choose candidates who most closely represent the ideals of that party, allowing for a genuine choice for all voters in the general election.

To allow those who have little interest in those ideals to vote in a primary would blur the differences between the parties and diminish the clarity of choices. That blurring would not serve the citizenry well, either locally or nationally.

Ann Womble is a Board member of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy and a former chairwoman of Lancaster County Republican Committee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

This originally appeared in the May 31, 2015 edition of LNP.

Nothing presented here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.