Closed and Open Primaries

May 12, 2011

During next week’s primary, as they have done for decades, members of the Democratic Party will choose their candidates and Republicans will do the same.  The system is called a ‘closed primary.’  It excludes voters without a party affiliation.  It also means voters registered in one party cannot vote in another party’s primary.  Now, there’s been discussion in one statewide office race about the pros and cons of opening up the Kentucky primary a bit.

Many of Kentucky’s leaders feel much like Hilda Legg, who’s running for Secretary of State.  The Somerset native, who worked in the federal government and private sector, thinks the current system works well.  Legg told Kentucky Educational Television the closed primary allows a political party to make decisions that are best for its members.

“We need to have clear boundaries of what our philosophy is.  It won’t fit perfectly with me or you. Well over half the states offer some form of open primary.  It’s an idea which has been tested in Kentucky’s general assembly.  The effort in Kentucky has focused on letting ‘independents’ vote in the primary,” said Legg.

University of Kentucky political scientist Don Gross says the closed primary is a system that best serves the party faithful.  The idea being, party membership has its privileges.

“It’s the basic notion that we are Democrats, if you want to join, fine.  We welcome you.  Come in.  But, if you’re not willing to join our party, stay out of our decisions.  Of if you’re a Republican, you want to join us fine. But if you don’t want to declare yourself a Republican, stay out of our decisions… it’s our decision….they represent our party,” said Gross.

The second Republican candidate in the race for Secretary of State is more agreeable.  Bill Johnson, who’s a military veteran with experience in oil production, favors opening the door to independents. The secretary of state’s office says almost seven percent of registered voters are listed in the category called ‘other.’  Independents would fall in that group. 

In an open primary, there’s fear unaffiliated voters could sabotage a party by supporting candidates who wouldn’t appeal  to the party faithful, or to voters in the general election.  Even with it limited to independents, some critics worry independents could still undermine a party as it tries to select the best candidate.   Johnson says that attitude underestimates the integrity of independent voters.

“I don’t think they are a pawn for anybody.  I think it’s an insult to say independents are there to manipulate the process.  They want to participate and we’re saying ‘No, you can’t participate.’  So let’s let them participate,” added Johnson.

Over the last few years, some lawmakers have tried to open up primaries to independent voters.  Legislation proposed by Lebanon Senator Jimmy Higdon, said registered independents could vote in either party’s primary.  Over the winter, his proposal won approval in the state senate, but failed in the house. 

Higdon has heard from independents who tell him they’re taxpayers, they help pay for elections, so they should be able to vote.  The state senator argues the first political party that voluntarily opens up its primary will enjoy an unfair advantage during the general election.

“I think that would really be an advantage to one party so that’s kind of why I’m trying to do it as a open both primaries to the independent voter,” said Higdon.

If change ever comes, the people who manage Kentucky’s elections say it could add to their paperwork.  County Clerk Don Blevins manages elections in the Lexington area.

“For example, if you come in as an Independent, you’ll have to choice if you’re gonna’ vote in the Republican or Democratic primary or any other primary for that matter.   So there is processing to be done and records to be kept, above and beyond what we are doing today,” explained Blevins.

During this May’s primary, voters will go a long way in picking the person who will oversee general elections, special elections and primary elections.  Democratic voters must choose either Alison Lundergan Grimes or Elaine Walker.  And, in the G-O-P primary, registered Republican voters will select either Bill Johnson or Hilda Legg. 

It will be November before independent voters can make their selection.