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Open Primaries and Closed Debate

The closed primary is not voter disenfranchisement.

(Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

My home state of Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that has totally closed primaries—that is, we retain the tradition that only members of a political party may vote to select that party’s nominees for elected office, and independent or unaffiliated voters may not participate. There has been a growing movement in Pennsylvania to allow open primaries, by which independents may choose to vote in one party’s primary. The goals and grievances are somewhat understandable, but the movement raises serious concerns about how we view primary elections, political parties, and the concept of belonging to a closed group in general. 

Critics of the closed primary claim that the current system leads to the nomination of politically polarizing and unelectable candidates picked by the party base due to the lack of participation of more “moderate” independents. They also claim that closed primaries disenfranchise independent voters, who make up an increasing percentage of the voting population. 


The idea that the closed primary system leads to the nomination of “fringe” candidates who hold views outside the mainstream makes some sense. Pennsylvania is very much a purple swing state, but the state's GOP put up the hardline state senator Doug Mastriano as its 2022 gubernatorial candidate. 

The conventional wisdom from the beginning was Mastriano never had a chance in Pennsylvania. While it is not clear that Mastriano lost because he was too far to the right, rather than because he failed to raise money and run a campaign, proponents of the open primary system point to candidates like him, claim that such candidates are not representative of the people of Pennsylvania, and call for open primaries as a solution.

But do open primaries where independents can temper the Republican base necessarily lead to more moderate candidates? A look at the list of open primary states shows that the answer is not clearly “yes.” Georgia and Ohio both have open primaries. In 2022, Georgia’s Republican nominee for Senate was Herschel Walker; Ohio’s was J.D. Vance. These examples provide at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that open primaries do not necessarily yield the result desired by open primary advocates.

Even if the proposal yielded the intended result of more moderate or electable candidates, there is a fundamental, principled reason to oppose open primaries: Political parties are not meant to be open to outsiders. Every American voter is free to join the Republican party. But the party is a closed association, meant to gather and represent the policy preferences of the people who decide to be part of it. If people do not agree with the policy preferences of the Republican platform or its chosen Republican candidates, those people are free to be part of another political party, or none at all.

The primary election is the modern mechanism for the political party to select its own candidate. Open primary advocates want to accomplish the goal of having more moderate candidates that are palatable to more people outside the party. But that is not the point of a primary. The primary is meant to select the candidate preferred by the party. If open primary advocates want more moderate candidates who they believe are more representative of the voters, they should consider nominating an independent candidate. 


The closed primary is not voter disenfranchisement. Every voter is free to join a political party. If someone chooses not to do so, or chooses to join a third party that has little power, that is a free choice. Anyone who claims to be an independent is perfectly free to maintain their independence of thought, and still join a major political party in order to participate meaningfully in primary elections. If voters choose not to do so and instead remain independent or unaffiliated with a political party, they are only disenfranchising themselves. 

Proposing an open primary as a solution is akin to saying that a particular religion is too extreme, and it should be tempered by allowing members of other more moderate sects to have a vote about that church’s beliefs and practices. Wrong answer: Join a different church. If you choose not to be part of a group—whether a church or a political party—it is unfair and improper to complain that you do not have a say in how that group operates.

This open primary movement is the latest front for the widespread obsession with an open society, where all are included in everything and everything is open to everyone. People are uncomfortable with the reality that there is such a thing as a closed group to which some belong and others don’t. 

Yet closed groups make for a healthy society. Churches, local community organizations, charities, and political parties are crucial to a thriving culture. These associations are closed groups, where people subscribe to a set of rules or principles in order to join and be a part of it. These closed groups make contributions to society outside of themselves, and they need to be closed in order to be what they are, to have an identity that makes them distinct. 

Catholics rightly have no vote in the Southern Baptist Convention; non-members do not decide on the practices of the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary Club. Independents and Democrats are not Republicans, so they have no right to vote in a Republican primary, because the primary is an internal part of the Republican party’s process to select its candidates. 

The growing number of independent voters may be right that the candidates being put forth by the two major parties no longer represent the views of a majority of Americans. Such a shift has happened before; one of the most interesting historical examples is the fall of the Whigs and the rise of the Republican party in the 1850s. When a party no longer serves its purpose, the solution may be realignment within existing parties, or the rise of a replacement party. 

If American independent voters feel strongly that drastic change is needed, they can form a new party. Or they can pick the major party that they believe can be reformed, join it in droves, and influence its platform through conventions and primary elections. They would be well within their rights to do so. But they do not have the right to remain outside a closed group and boldly insist that they should have a say in how that group chooses its candidates. 

As long as political parties exist, they ought to be governed and operated by their own members, not by everyone and anyone who wants a say. This is not disenfranchisement. This is freedom of association. Associate with whomever you would like—but don’t complain about lack of power over an association with which you choose not to associate.


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