Several Missouri lawmakers are pushing bills that would close the state's primaries, meaning voters would have to register with a party nearly half a year before the primary election.
Closed primaries are a bad move.
In a closed primary, voters who are not affiliated with either party can't vote for a candidate; they would only get to vote on noncandidate questions that might appear on the ballot. It would, in effect, cut out a large percentage of independent voters.
Jeremy Gruber, with the organization Open Primaries, makes the most compelling case for keeping things as they are: Primaries are taxpayer-funded, public elections — they are not paid for by either party — and every voter should have the right to participate fully.
Nationally, the number of independent voters is growing. The latest data from Pew Research Center indicates that 34% of voters nationwide who have had to register are registered as Independents — higher than for either Democrats or Republicans. A previous Gallup poll found that in all 50 states, 40-45% of voters identify as independent. Much of this shift away from either party is occurring among young people and people of color, Gruber said.
Proponents fear voters in open primary states such as Missouri are crossing party lines, meaning Republicans ask for a Democratic ballot in order to pick the weakest candidate, and Democrats do the same in order to handicap Republicans. This at least is encouraged, but we have no evidence that it is altering the outcome of primaries, and we'd need some proof that it is a serious problem before we'd agree to let lawmakers change a system that works. In fact, exit polls after Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" against Barack Obama indicated voters weren't willing to waste their votes on these kinds of stunts.
Here's another shortcoming: Voters would have to commit to a party 23 weeks before the primary — before the filing deadline for candidates, meaning voters would have to affiliate with a party without knowing who the candidate is going to be. No thanks. What if voters learn something about a candidate they don't agree with or like, or what if voters have a change of heart or philosophical or political leaning? Sorry, they're locked in. The message of the closed primary is that the candidate doesn't matter, only the party.
Closed primaries also preclude voters from having a say in the elections that matter most. In Republican-dominated Southwest Missouri, for example, the real contest is settled in the primary and the November general election often is a formality. We don't think Democrats should be excluded from having a say in the primary among Republican candidates for the 7th District, for example, because that is their Congressman too, any more than Republicans should be excluded from having a say in the Democratic strongholds in the state.
We can't think of a good reason to change Missouri's open primary system, and we can think of a host of reasons to keep it as is.
We hope lawmakers let these measures die.