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National Issues

Should we move to nonpartisan primary systems?

With the first primaries quickly approaching, it is important to examine not only who is leading in the polls and whose campaigns are most effective, but also the nature of the political system itself. Given that this is one of the most polarizing elections in recent history, it’s worth examining if the types of primary systems adopted by the states have a role in this.

Currently, 35 states have a closed or partially closed primary system. Closed primaries maintain the party’s freedom of association by ensuring that only registered party members can vote in that party’s primary. This benefit should not be diminished; by preventing other parties from diluting primaries, as in the 1972 Michigan Democratic Primary, closed primaries bolster the ideals of free and fair elections.

However, low voter turnout in primary elections and the exclusion of independent candidates, who tend to be more moderate, can lead to candidates in both larger parties adopting more extreme positions to satisfy their electorate.

In order to combat this issue, 11 states have moved toward open primary systems. Open primaries allow individuals to vote in any party’s primary, regardless of which political party they are registered in, or whether or not they are registered at all. Although this system allows crossover voting, it also allows for independent voters to vote in primary elections, eliminating the inherent biases in party bases that skew primary elections.

Although open primary systems are more inclusive than closed primary systems, the issue of crossover voting persists, diluting the political process by leading to candidates who don’t represent the party or the electorate well.

And then there are nonpartisan, top-two primary elections, where all candidates, regardless of political party, are placed on a single ballot. Voters choose their top two candidates; they are not beholden to their registered party, and the incentive of crossover voting — purposely choosing weak candidates from the opposing party to make it easier for your party to win — is reduced.

Nonpartisan, top-two primaries not only change the way primaries are run, they change the motivations of the primary election itself. The purpose of primary elections in closed and open systems is for a political party to choose the candidate who best represents the party and provides the party the greatest potential to win the election.

However, the purpose of elections is not to provide wins for political parties, it’s to provide voters the most accurate representation of their beliefs through a particular candidate. Nonpartisan top-two primaries reflect that notion. By providing voters complete autonomy to choose the best candidates in whatever manner they choose, nonpartisan top-two primaries maintain the ideals of free and fair elections — from their implementations to their motivations.

Currently, there are only four states with nonpartisan top-two primaries: Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and California. As we witness one of the most polarizing elections in recent history, it’s worth considering whether the nature of the primary system has a little something to do with it.


Nikita Gawande, from San Ramon, California, is a sophomore majoring economics and public policy studies at Duke.

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