Posted Online: Feb. 25, 2013, 6:00 am

Consequences of open primary

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By Jim Nowlan

Politics is complicated. And every action has consequences. Such as Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to enact an open primary law in Illinois.

On its surface, the idea sounds good. A voter would no longer have to request publicly, for all the world to know, a Republican or Democratic ballot when voting in a primary election. This is all that identifies a voter as a member of one party or another.

At the next election, in Illinois anyway, a voter may change his or her request to that of another party, so nobody is ever bound to a party.

Still, many people wince at the idea of telling others in the polling place about their party preferences.

If, however, Illinois were to move to an open primary such as in Wisconsin and Michigan, where no one knows a person's party preference, political parties would be weakened a smidge. (In Wisconsin and some other states, the voter goes into the voting booth and has all parties' ballots available, but the voter may fill out only one party's ballot.)

For example, in Michigan's presidential primary in 2012, some Democrats tried, unsuccessfully, to raid the Republican primary by voting for Rick Santorum in an effort to defeat the stronger Mitt Romney.

In California and Washington State primary elections, voters are presented a "blanket ballot" of all party candidates, in which they may vote for some Republicans and some Democrats as well as Greens, whatever. The top two candidates, even if from the same party, are nominated to the fall general election. This eliminates the role of political parties altogether.

George Washington warned against the influence of "factions" (interest groups, the forerunners of parties). Yet political parties developed, probably inevitably, as a way of organizing voters around candidates of similar values and positions.

If you wanted to run for office, it made sense to line up with like-minded others who could help you win election.

Two major parties developed, for several reasons, but primarily because we have a winner-take-all system (only one person is elected from a district), so only parties with a chance of winning became strong.

Why, for example, be active in a party that generates only 15 percent of the vote, and never wins anything? Several European countries elect groups of candidates together, so a party with 15 percent of the vote wins 15 percent of the spots. Thus countries such as Israel have many parties competing, rather than just two.

Political parties have had several functions in our nation: recruit and nominate candidates, and provide helpful cues to voters who don't know the candidates (the Republican Party is known by voters to be, for example, favorable to business, and the Democrats traditionally back unions).

Party organizations have also in the past run the campaigns of their candidates and provided the money to do so. In other words, parties used to provide the people (precinct workers), money and skill to contest elections.

Parties have, unfortunately, I think, become progressively weaker over the decades in the jobs of contesting elections. They generally no longer provide people, money or skill for candidates. Candidates must do that for themselves.

This simply increases the role of money in politics, which fills the vacuum left by parties. Members of Congress, for example, are told by campaign consultants that they will have to spend 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money for their next primary and general election races! What a way to live, and for democracy to function.

I had a call once from a friend running for Congress who was wearing a headset, dialing for dollars for several hours each day. This only increases the power of big contributors, especially of those who can pour millions into races, as New York billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing in the congressional seat open in Illinois to replace Jesse Jackson, Jr.

At present, the Supreme Court has said that individuals cannot have their free speech rights infringed by any limits on contributions to independent superPACs. At the same time, Congress has limited how much can be contributed to political parties.

I think it would be beneficial, at the margin, to allow increased contributions to parties, provide limited public funding to candidates who raise lots from small donations, and keep our Illinois primary elections the way they are.

If political parties are to have any role in the future, they will have to master rapidly changing digital democracy. I foresee the Internet and social media as the new intermediary between voters and elections, probably replacing political parties for good, other than as residual brand names to help a few voters decide.
Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He is a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.