Opdycke is the president of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization that advocates for open and nonpartisan primary systems.
For weeks leading up to the pivotal South Carolina primary, the media warned of a sinister plot hatched by President Trump and Rush Limbaugh called "Operation Chaos."
Pundits warned that tens of thousands of sleeper-cell Republicans were being prepped to flood the polls during the Democratic presidential contest two weekends ago in a cynical (but legal in states with nonpartisan voter registration) effort to push Bernie Sanders to victory — on the theory the Vermont senator would be the weakest Trump opponent in the general election. Hundreds of hours of cable news histrionics reinforced this narrative. Social media was abuzz with dire warnings about the dangers of allowing people to vote in ways not deemed appropriate or legitimate.
Except it was all hype. It didn't happen.
So what's the problem?
The fear-mongering before the primary, which former Vice President Joe Biden won decisively, has empowered the opponents of such open election systems. They now have the political cover they need to say, "Open primaries are insane. We need more partisan control over who can vote!"
According to the exit polling, 5 percent of the people who voted in the South Carolina primary were Republicans. Just 5 percent. That's about the normal amount for South Carolina, which does not have partisan voter registration. In a typical election in the state, between 3 percent and 5 percent of self-identified Republicans vote in the Democratic primary and between 3 and 5 percent of Democrats cross the opposite way. The share of the vote was so small that the pollsters weren't able to draw any useful conclusions from it.
The real story is that 26 percent of those who voted Feb. 28 were independents. That's what advocates of closed primaries advocates really fear. Not "party raiding," the usual term in political circles for what would have been had Operation Chaos come to pass. The power of such efforts has been repeatedly debunked by academic studies. Instead, Republican and Democratic leaders fear the rapid increase in the number of voters who aren't loyal to and won't join either party. That's the motivation for the overreaction to Trump and Limbaugh's provocation.
Trump called for South Carolina's Republicans to flood the Democratic primary. They didn't. But the opponents of open elections — Democrats and Republicans alike — don't care. They whip up fear and use it to advance closed primary legislation, particularly in states with long histories of voter suppression such as Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina. The media moves on, but the damage is done. One lone article has been written exposing that the Trump-Limbaugh effort was laughably ineffective.
In 2016, insiders from both parties joined together to decry the dangers of open primaries in California and how the system of open elections in the nation's most populous state would derail the entire race. In a rare show of bipartisan agreement, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy declared that he hated his state's system and his fellow Californian Nancy Pelosi, then leader of the House Democratic minority, pronounced that an open primary "is not a reform. It is terrible."
But the primary came and went without problems, save one (if you even want to call it that): More than 4 million independents cast ballots. Today open primaries in California are supported by a lopsided majority of voters, Democrats and Republicans as well as independents.
Overreaction to the Trump-Limbaugh hoax — combined with the cyclical assault on voting reforms by partisans in both parties during election season — is the real Operation Chaos. Create fear. Convince the American people, including many in the growing election reform movement, that contests open to all voters are an invitation to chaos. Ignore the fact that they don't do any such thing. Then press forward efforts to close down open primaries, lock out independent voters, obstruct reform and further construct and reinforce the partisan silos that are ruining American civic life.
The American people aren't being fooled, even if seasoned journalists are. Open elections are the bedrock of democracy. Continuing the effort to build a more perfect union is a requirement of American citizenship. It's time to take the fight to the insiders of both parties with a very simple demand: Let all voters vote.
Fields is on the board of Open Primaries, a national election reform organization that advocates for open and nonpartisan primary systems. Opdycke is its president.
Open Primaries recently endorsed the STL Approves campaign in St. Louis for approval voting and nonpartisan primaries. It's an important effort, not just for the city, but for the country.
We join local community and civil rights leaders including City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Democratic Party Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge, the Rev. Darryl Gray, the League of Women Voters, Show Me Integrity and the Center for Election Science in endorsing this initiative.
St. Louis is one of only a few remaining major cities — New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Louisville, Indianapolis, Charlotte and Washington are the others — that conduct partisan municipal elections. It's a lousy system. Candidates must first win a partisan primary, and then compete in a general election. More than 80 percent of cities conduct nonpartisan elections and let all voters vote for whomever they want in both the first and second rounds. Like many cities completely dominated by one party, the only election that counts in St. Louis is the Democratic primary; whoever wins the Democratic Primary is the de facto winner.
STL Approves is gathering signatures in hopes of getting a referendum on the ballot next April. It wants to change the status quo using a one-two punch:
- End partisan primaries and replace them with an open, nonpartisan primary in which all voters vote and all candidates compete.
- Institute approval voting, an innovative form of voting where citizens "approve" of as many candidates as they want.
Every voter gets to participate in round one, not just Democrats, and they get to choose from among all the candidates: Democrats, Republicans, Greens and independents. Voters get to do something new — hallelujah — which is approve of candidates. The two who have the most approval advance from the first to the second round. The ultimate winner will have won the broad support of the city's voters.
The new system is all about the voters and the candidates, not about the parties. Let all voters participate in every round. Give them new tools with which to cast ballots. Let candidates campaign to everyone and earn a majority if they want to serve. It's a win-win for voters and candidates, and lose-lose for party elites who prefer an outdated system that gives them maximum control.
The current system is woefully out of sync. Many candidates in St. Louis win primaries with less than 40 percent support and then coast to victory in noncompetitive general elections. If enacted by the voters, the new system will encourage more involvement and higher turnout. And with it, a more representative and democratic political culture in St. Louis.
Our organization is endorsing this effort for two important reasons.
First, there is a national conversation about electoral innovation that is accelerating, which is very positive. But improvements to how we vote work best when all voters can participate. In St. Louis, not everyone can participate in round one, which is the only round that counts. Only Democrats can. Republicans, third-party members and independents are forced to choose a Democratic ballot or be frozen out. At a time when independents are the fastest growing segment of the electorate, voting arrangements that treat these voters as second-class citizens are outdated and have to go. The STL Approves campaign will bring approval voting to the city and make sure that everyone can vote in the elections.
There's another reason we are endorsing this measure. St. Louis is a majority-minority city with a prominent black community and a history of both civil rights advancements and ongoing inequality, tension and frustration. When the protests in neighboring Ferguson are over and the policing reforms (such as they are) are implemented, the question of how to empower the marginalized and create a voting system that encourages bridge building and cross-community coalitions remains.
Election reform only makes sense if it helps real people dismantle barriers and create a better future together. We think STL Approves is doing just that.
- Approval voting (not RCV) shows strength in St. Louis - The Fulcrum ›
- It's not just ranked-choice. Approval voting is also in the offing. - The ... ›
- John Opdycke hopes to put voters in a new kind of open mind - The Fulcrum ›
- Magic Johnson endorses open primaries in Florida - The Fulcrum ›
- Q&A with co-founders of Students for Open Primaries - The Fulcrum ›
- Video: 'Partisan primaries are a primary problem' - The Fulcrum ›
Opdycke is president of Open Primaries, which advocates for nonpartisan primaries open to all voters.
End Citizens United, a political action committee, is urging Democratic presidential contenders to champion anti-corruption to defeat President Trump. Tom Steyer's entry into the race may help bolster this argument. His launch video stresses the importance of addressing voter frustration with big party and big money control: "Really what we are trying to do is make democracy work by pushing power down to the people."
"It's key to winning back independents, the kind of independents that Democrats have lost over the last couple cycles," Adam Bozzi, vice president for communications at End Citizens United, told Politico. "It's a jump ball: Voters don't know who to trust, whether it's Trump or a Democrat, on this issue."
There are reasons that voters — most especially independents — don't know who to trust to "drain the swamp."
The biggest lack of trust is that politicians, including those who speak out on reform, are consistently silent on the corruption within their own parties.
Take HR 1, the omnibus bill passed by the new Democratic-led House earlier this year. The bill contains many positive measures designed to increase voter access. It's more notable for what it doesn't contain, namely anything that might broaden the electorate and increase the access and influence of non-Democrats.
An astonishing 26 million independent voters will be barred from casting a ballot in the 2020 presidential primaries. In crucial states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and New York, the Democratic Party has been largely silent on the exclusion of millions of independents from taxpayer-funded elections, even as they demand campaign finance reform and champion changes to make it easier for Democrats to cast ballots.
Not a single Democrat said, "Hey, people won't believe us if the only reforms we push are those that will benefit our voters!" It's easy to see why independents don't know who to trust.
The Republicans are no better. Trump campaigned on draining the swamp. That promise has been reduced to attacking economic and environmental regulations, not advocating for voter empowerment or ending party control of government. The "swamp" has been redefined, not drained. GOP legislators are undermining voter-enacted reforms in Missouri, Florida and Michigan, and Trump's team is plotting how to limit voter involvement in the buildup to 2020. Numerous state GOP organizations are planning to cancel their presidential primaries altogether.
It's positive that End Citizens United is educating Democratic contenders about how attuned independent voters are to issues of process, democracy and reform. Other Democratic leaders, like Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of the party in Nebraska, and Aaron McKinney of the Miami-Dade County, advocate for letting independent voters participate in the 2020 presidential primaries. But the dominant approach is to push reform from a partisan perspective.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder is a case in point. He is spearheading Democratic efforts to combat gerrymandering. But he is not really advocating for an end to gerrymandering, just Republican "extreme-gerrymandering." He's not fighting to end the party control of mapmaking — he wants Democrats to have a bigger cut of the gerrymandering pie. This approach raises suspicions among independents, as well as Democrats and Republicans eager to create a less partisan political framework.
The End Citizens United team is right. A strong "unrig the system" stance will be key to inspiring independents in 2020. These voters are growing in number (now over 42 percent), they want to reform politics and government, and they've been swinging between Democratic and Republican candidates to affect change for many cycles now. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, et al. would be wise to listen.
But championing campaign finance reform is only part of the picture. Open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, nonpartisan election administration, presidential debates open to qualified independent candidates — these are reforms designed to benefit all Americans, not simply the organized Democratic base. The candidate (or candidates) who champion a truly American approach to political change and a redistribution of power has a chance of inspiring independents. And earning their trust.