Politics

Bernie Sanders Is Wrong About Closed Primaries

| by Nicholas Roberts
Sen. Sanders speaking at a conference in 2013Sen. Sanders speaking at a conference in 2013

In the wake of New York's primary, many New York independent voters who sought to cast their ballots for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were disappointed to find out that New York's primary was closed -- meaning only registered party members could vote in it -- and that the deadline for registering was last October.

The insanity of New York's primary is compounded by the fact that the state does not have early voting, absentee voting is "excuse-only," and the voter registration deadline (separate from partisan affiliation deadline) is over three weeks before Election Day, as Jon Green writes in America Blog.

But does the profoundly undemocratic nature of New York's primary mean that closed primaries are bad in general?  It does not: closed primaries, while they may appear to make state Democratic or Republican parties appear insular, allow party members invested in the party's future to make key decisions about the party's eventual nominee without the fear that someone with no allegiance to the party could end up being its nominee.

As long as the United States operates within a clear party system, there will always be a need for party members to have a degree of control over who their candidate will be.  As Vox's Jeff Stein notes, this is particularly important if the party in question wants to control not just the White House, but also the other levers of power in Washington, D.C.

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As DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has said before: "The Democratic primary should be determined by Democratic voters."

To a lesser degree, closed primaries can also serve to make sure that a "maverick," outsider candidate -- like, say, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump -- will not be propped up.  This is what allegedly occurred in several primaries during this election season when Democratic voters crossed over to vote for Donald Trump in several open-primary states, and was the key feature of Rush Limbaugh's 2008 "Operation Chaos," in which he urged conservative voters to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries in order to prolong them.

Sanders has recently called for the Democratic Party to embrace open primaries in all states.  Given the growing number of registered independents in the U.S., it appears that he is trying to strategically position the Democratic Party to open itself up to these voters by embracing the principle of open primaries.  Independent voters now make up 40 percent of the electorate, which means that the days of closed primaries could be numbered -- particularly if this figure only continues to grow.

The future of the closed primary really depends on the growth of registered party voters over the next few election cycles.  If the "Sanders Revolution" leads to an influx of young registered Democrats, party elites will be convinced that there is no need to change the system substantially.  On the other hand, if registrations languish then the party would have a huge incentive to open up its primaries -- even if it means the party would be taken in a more left-wing direction.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Vox, America Blog / Photo credit: AFGE/Flickr

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