Opening Up Primary Elections Is a Voting Rights Issue

The primary is often the only real contest in choosing those who will represent us. Closed party primaries are unrepresentative and undemocratic, and they disenfranchise more than half of the voting public: independents.

OPINION | Dec. 11, 2023 •  Jeremy Gruber, Open Primaries

A hundred years ago, Texas passed a state law allowing the political parties to determine their own internal rules for primary elections. The state Democratic Party promptly banned Black voters from primaries. Twenty years later, the future first Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, led the NAACP’s successful challenge of the law in the landmark case of Smith v. Allwright. He later called it the most important case of his career.

Since then, the voting rights community has focused most of its attention on barriers to participation in general elections — even as primary elections have become more and more determinative. Closed party primaries, in which only registered party members are allowed to cast ballots, are unrepresentative, undemocratic and an affront to the values at the core of the historic fight for voting rights in America.

A supermajority of U.S. citizens do not live in competitive congressional and state legislative districts. We don’t really have a two-party system like we used to years ago. It’s more accurate to say that most of us live in a one-party system, but that the “one” party differs depending on where you live. Our review of state legislative races across the country in 2022, for example, found that roughly 50 percent of legislative candidates ran unopposed and less than 10 percent actually faced competitive opponents. The primary is the only real contest for most voters.

The mark of a democratic country is not whether it has direct elections. Russia has direct elections. It’s whether those elections are inclusive and meaningful. Our general elections are for the most part inclusive but often meaningless. Our primary elections are often meaningful but highly exclusive.

Partisan primaries, by design, separate voters by party even in states without partisan voter registration, limiting voter choice to candidates from a single party. And when you close them, as at least one party does in 15 states, you exclude the largest group of voters in the country: independents. We complain about partisanship and division in America, but then we continue to elect our representatives in a partisan and divisive system.

Today, more voters are independents than are registered as Republicans or Democrats. Closed primaries may be taxpayer-funded, but more than half of the voting public is shut out of the most meaningful round of elections. I’m one of them. I’m a registered independent in New York City. The only elections that matter for local, state and federal offices in New York are largely found in the Democratic Party primaries. I, along with 3 million other New Yorkers, can’t vote in them. We’re one of the only western democracies that allow partisans to decide which Americans are entitled to vote.

Independent voters are a cross-section of America, but some groups stand out. Over half of our young people — millennial and Gen Z voters — are independents. And one study out of Florida found 42 percent of Asian Americans, 36 percent of Latinos and 16 percent of African Americans to be registered independents. They are asked to pay for elections they aren’t allowed to participate in. It’s un-American.

Consider the following: Some leaders in Louisiana are currently considering closing their primaries to independent voters. The consequence if they are successful? More than 800,000 registered independents and third-party members — a quarter of them Black — would be disenfranchised in congressional, state and local primaries the same way they are now in Louisiana’s presidential primaries. These are the elections where most of the real choices for these voters exist. Such a change would be the largest act of voter disenfranchisement in the state in decades. Where is the uproar from the voting rights community?

The late Congressman John Lewis once said: “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” The fight for voting rights in our country — part of the never-ending struggle to create a more perfect union — has always been at its core a process fight. It’s about how we govern ourselves and who gets to be part of the “we.”

Closed primaries are neither a product of our Constitution nor do they reflect the core democratic value of fairness and equality. It’s time for the voting rights community to embrace primary election reform and fight for the right of all voters to vote where it really counts.

Jeremy Gruber is the senior vice president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization. He previously worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and several other civil rights organizations. He is a co-author of the law review article Let All Voters Vote: Independents and the Expansion of Voting Rights in the United States.

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