Virginia Pilot:

Keep primary elections open to all voters


In a small meeting in Richmond last month that very few residents of the commonwealth were likely aware of, delegates who serve on the House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on Election Administration rightly and soundly rejected yet another attempt to close our primary elections.

I testified against the bill (House Bill 56), which would have required Virginia voters to indicate party affiliations and granted political parties the right to exclude us from taxpayer-funded primary elections. Ten other Virginia residents and the League of Women Voters provided written comments for the record, all in opposition.

Committee members were skeptical that their constituents would benefit from the resulting inconvenience and limitation of their rights. As Del. Rozia Henson, D-Fairfax, noted, many districts are dominated by one party or the other, which means the only election that matters is the majority party’s primary. Under current law, all voters may participate in what is considered a semi-open primary; any voter may choose either party’s primary ballot. HB56 threatened that right with measures that would make our elections semi-closed, meaning each party could decide whether independents or voters affiliated with another party would be eligible to choose their party’s ballot.

Unfortunately, in a highly partisan environment that far too often resembles football games, independent voters such as me (who now vastly exceed those of either major party) are almost always on defense in such matters. In this game, the ball never changes hands. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, sponsored bills in 2016, 2018 and 2020 that would have created a single nonpartisan primary election, where all candidates are on one ballot and all voters vote. In each instance, they failed to advance beyond the committee after his own party refused to endorse them. Otherwise, primary election legislation in Virginia in this century has largely featured determined efforts by the Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) to close the primaries over consecutive years.

Closed primaries are only fair if parties own the primary elections. But they don’t. All Virginia taxpayers fund administration of these elections. Moreover, all voters deserve equal rights and full participation in primary elections because that’s where we decide who appears on the general election ballot. As Boss Tweed (the infamous leader of New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine) said, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” If either party closes its primary, the other will be more likely to do so, which then leaves independents — half of all voters — with no voice at all in the primaries. All voters will then face a choice of more biased candidates in the general election — aggravating partisanship and further eroding our trust in government.

Sadly, Virginia — despite our proud early history of political leadership — is following states that insist on letting politicians choose their voters by any means necessary. We should be following the increasing number of states that have adopted or are considering nonpartisan primaries. Alaska, Washington, California and Nebraska have already adopted nonpartisan primaries at the state level and they will be on the ballot in Nevada, Idaho, South Dakota and Arizona this November. You’ve probably already voted in a nonpartisan primary; it’s how we run most of our municipal elections.

In a healthy democracy, political parties would be competing for voters instead of trying to exclude us, and our preferences for alternatives would be counted so we would not have to waste our single vote on a hopeless candidate or a least objectionable choice. Virginia voters deserve no less.

Steve Richardson of Falls Church is a national spokesperson for Open Primaries and a leader of the Virginia Forward Party.

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