Front Page















A Primary Blunder - February 16, 2000

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

For the better part of this century, political party nominees have been chosen through a free and fair election process. This was accomplished by the direct polling of members of a political organization. A majority of states still utilize what is known as a closed primary, where, prior to an election, voters are required to declare party affiliation in order to participate in a given party's primary.

A number of states, though, have now abandoned the customary method and embraced the notion of open primaries. Advocates for open primaries generally attempt to persuade the electorate that an open system is preferable because it promotes broader participation. But upon even a superficial examination, one discovers that change of this nature can have a far-reaching and potentially damaging effect on our system.

During the past few years, it has become downright fashionable for states to implement a "progressive" type of primary, where members of one party are allowed to cross over and cast their votes to select another party's nominee.

But now that the experiment is in full swing, segments of the voting populous may feel as if they have been swept up into a dusky fog and dropped into a Fellini movie. A conscientious member of the Rotary Club who watches helplessly as new officers are chosen by members of the Martha Stuart Fan Club might be an apt analogy.

Just who instigated this change and what was the motivation behind the strategy?

Well, in numerous states across the country, moderate Republicans who were concerned about the robust influence of religious conservatives on grassroots politics sought a way to reduce the group's increasing leverage.

Rather than attempting to legitimately capture additional power through conventional activism, as groups of various persuasions have accomplished in the past, moderates sought a procedural shortcut to ascendancy via a purported reform in the primary process. Many Democrats actively supported such a revision, most likely for opportunistic reasons.

Since the purpose of the game plan was to incorporate more moderate votes into primary campaigns, the architects of the open primary plan anticipated beneficial results that would presumably come from independent voters and opposing party members. What they failed to consider was the possibility that their dream scheme might somehow devolve into an inescapable nightmare.

We now have reports flooding in from all over the country that Democrats are engaged in what is being labeled strategic voting. Democrat Party members are registering as Independents or Republicans with the intention of influencing the outcomes of various open primaries.

Projections in the state of Michigan offer a glimpse into a troubling potential scenario. If poll numbers stay within the same range as current predictions indicate, a majority of Republican Party members will choose George W. Bush as their candidate. At the same time, a plurality of those participating in the open primary will choose a different candidate, John McCain. In the event that this occurs, George W. Bush, in essence, would be the preferred choice of unfeigned Republicans, but John McCain would win the primary.

Clearly, this type of outcome would undermine the very integrity of the election process. But another destructive force looms large. The open primary approach violates the spirit and letter of one of our fundamental rights, that being, the right to freely associate. The formation of political parties is part and parcel of this basic, constitutional principle.

Political parties exist because of legitimate variances in philosophical ideas. A system where party members would have their election results negated by a convoluted arrangement which allows people from outside the party to choose the ultimate nominee is completely incongruent with the notion of fairness.

Individuals who temporarily masquerade as Republicans with the clear intention of switching back to their Democrat Party affiliation immediately following the primary are engaged in much more than idle mischief.

What we may have is a significant number of people who are willing to participate in a patently deceptive activity with the objective of sabotaging a crucial electoral procedure. Is not America so much greater than this?

The bizarre situation in which the Republican Party finds itself today is directly attributable to what may be referred to as the law of unintended consequences.

The penetrating lesson is that political maneuverings offer no assurance that improvement in the system will follow merely because the word reform appears in the descriptive language of a policy change. Furthermore, those who use the "r" word itself may not have looked far enough down the road to see the terminal destination.

James Madison said, "If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them." Embracing our legacy, a virtuous people will recognize political manipulation for what it is, reject counterfeit reform and maintain a free and fair election process.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

Copyright © 1999 - 2000
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

All Rights Reserved