Life of the Party

photo by Molly Kendrick
photo by Molly Kendrick

In 1980, election officials came to Ashdown High School and registered students to vote, those of us who had attained legal age. I was excited to be all grown up, ready to make my own decisions and do my part as a proud American citizen. But as I stood there awaiting my voter registration card, the volunteer, without an utterance requesting party affiliation, took a rubber stamp and slammed a big red “Democrat” on my card. She then handed it back to me and abruptly turned to the next kid. I walked away wondering, “What just happened? Why wasn’t I given a choice?” Being a naïve young voter, I was also unsure if it even mattered. In 1985, after graduating from college and moving to Texarkana, I was more self-assured and now truly ready to make my mark and do my part. I’d even studied the issues and candidates for the local, county and state seats. I was an informed voter. My husband and I arrived at our polling place for the primary elections. He chose the Democratic ballot and I the Republican. When we met back in the parking lot, he seemed satisfied, and I again dismayed. Most of the elections weren’t even on my ballot. I didn’t have anyone to vote for.

I clearly wasn’t as informed as I thought and again, proved to be a naïve voter. I learned, the hard way, that Texas has open primaries, as opposed to closed primaries, but not nonpartisan primaries. That’s when I researched and learned the difference.

An open primary is a primary election that does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party. Any registered voter may participate in the primaries, regardless of political affiliation. However, voters must choose one party’s ballot.

In a closed primary, only party affiliated voters may vote in their party’s primary. Generally, voters must have been registered with that party before Primary Day (or another specified deadline). No unaffiliated voter may participate.

A nonpartisan primary is a primary election in which all candidates for the same elected office, regardless of political party, run against each other at once instead of being segregated by political party. A nonpartisan primary eliminates partisan primaries in favor of a single nonpartisan primary that is open to all voters, including independents, with the top vote getters, regardless of party, moving on to the general election.

There are pros and cons to each of the above styled primary formats and hybrid styles in addition to these. There is also no clear consensus as to what style best serves public interest.

Proponents of nonpartisan ballots suggest:

  • Voters should be able to choose from all qualified candidates without a commitment to party affiliation.
  • The current system blocks candidates who are more diverse, moderate, independent, or third-party by restricting access to the ballot through funding, support, and litigation.
  • It would reduce the influence of both the Democratic and Republican parties, the media, lobbyists, and consultants that benefit from the two party’s strength and wealth.
  • Cooperation between elected officials belonging to different parties is more likely if elections were less partisan.
  • Competitive elections with more candidates would increase voter turnout.
  • Candidates are freer to state true beliefs rather than pandering to their party and framing their stance on issues to appeal to the more extreme voters.

Proponents for partisan elections argue:

  • Closed primaries promote party unity.
  • The absence of party labels confuses voters; a voter who must choose from among a group of candidates whom she knows nothing about will have no meaningful basis in casting a ballot.
  • In the absence of a party ballot, voters will turn to whatever cue is available, which often turns out to be the social prominence, name recognition or ethnicity.
  • Non-partisanship tends to produce elected officials more representative of the upper socioeconomic strata than of the general populace and aggravates the class bias in voting turnout, because in true non-partisan systems there are no organizations of local party workers to bring lower-class citizens to the polls on election day.
  • They depress voter participation by offering too many choices, creating run-offs, and voters feel their impact is minimized.
  • Many candidates in a nonpartisan primary may share similar political philosophies and end up splitting that vote, allowing a less popular, extremist candidate to fare better.

Only four states have some version of nonpartisan primaries. It can certainly be argued based upon this statistic that our current system of partisan primaries is the right position and works, but based upon a Time article from March 31, 2021, “Two-thirds of adults in the U.S. and France believe the political system needs overhauled, if not overthrown.” That statistic doesn’t seem to support that our current system works.

Both George Washington and John Adams expressed dread that the evolution of two great political parties competing for power and influence would create a strong and divisive partisanship damaging the effectiveness of our government.

Nonpartisan elections, or especially nonpartisan politicians, could reduce the gamesmanship that goes on in party politics. Today, both parties seem more concerned about making the other party look bad than they are about finding compromises and taking actions, creating policies that benefit this country and the citizens that elected them. I challenge that most of us actually aren’t even that far apart, whether Democrat, Republican, Independent or other, at least not on the important issues. Regardless of party affiliation, most Americans align on the policies of significance.

Data reflects that we judge the opposing party almost completely by the most far right or left positions of that party. We more strongly oppose extreme issues of the ‘other’ party than we support of the most extreme issues that represent our own party affiliation. That’s a head scratcher for me. By focusing on what we disagree on rather than what we agree on, we have become more polarized and less willing to talk, debate and certainly not compromise.

Exacerbating that polarization and increasing the impact of our party system, statistics show primary voters tend to hold much stronger far right or left leaning opinions than the mainstream voters who cast ballots in general elections. This means that by the time the moderate majority shows up at the polls, the dye is already cast, and many moderates never even made it through the primaries, if they ever even got on the ballot.

People are fed up with the partisanship of our elected leaders. How refreshing would it be if politicians were beholden to their constituents and not the party that got them elected? But that is one drawback of our system. Politics is big business, and the parties need their competition to drive revenue and support, which benefits them both. Frankly, support for partisan primaries is probably one of the only issues that both the Democratic and Republican parties totally support.

In the end, it’s still politics. The two-party system has served the country well for centuries and will well into the future, but only with us, the voters, as the enforcers and gatekeepers. Even without a nonpartisan system, we can make nonpartisan decisions. We need to look objectively at our politicians, demand more, hold them accountable for their actions, and vote for the candidates that represent us, not the party. It’s time to be an American first.


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