My Turn: Closed primary may have strengthened participation

Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2002

The day after Alaska's first primary election using six ballots, early returns reveal a resounding triumph for voters. The ballots did not scare people away from the polling booth, and closed voting may have actually made parties and participation stronger than they were under the old system.

The closed ballot returns Alaska to the original purpose of primary elections - allowing the party to pick its representative for general elections. The open ballot allowed any voter to vote for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation. This opens the possibility of voters in one party crossing-over to vote for the weaker candidate in a rival political party; setting up a near-certain win in the general election for their party.

Opponents of the closed ballot object to this, and declare that there is no proof crossover voters have impacted elections. Until Aug. 20 of this year, they were correct. On that day Republicans in Georgia's 4th Congressional District, tired of Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, went to the polls and voted en mass for her Democratic rival. Georgia retains an open ballot similar to the one Alaska used until the 2000 primaries, and while many Republicans considered McKinney's actions to be extreme, the Democrats were denied the candidate of their choice. If party politics is to remain the law of the land (and there is no sign of it being replaced), closed primary ballots are essential to political identity.

Another objection to the closed ballot is that it denies voters the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote in certain races. For example, voters may believe their candidate will not win, judge their vote wasted if they vote for that candidate, and vote for a stronger one instead using the open ballot. There are two answers to this: the power of conviction and the strengthening of parties.

If electors have the courage of their convictions, no vote is wasted. Popular choices are not necessarily the correct ones for an individual and a vote cast to uphold personal beliefs is never squandered. Under the open ballot, people receive dubious rewards for belonging to their party but are still able to vote for a candidate who has a reasonable chance of winning. Under the closed system, they must vote their beliefs or abandon them.

If people believe in their party, they will do everything they can to ensure that a candidate from their party will win. They will write letters, knock on doors, and raise money in support of their nominee. These activities build parties, and there is zero incentive for them if Alaska returns to an open ballot. Therefore, the Alaska Independence Party, the Greens, the Libertarians, and the Republican Moderates will remain on the fringe.

A final objection to the closed ballot is that it will depress voter turnout. Alaska had over 50 percent voter participation just 16 years ago, but participation fell sharply and barely reached 17 percent two years ago. This trend appears to be reversing. While only 402 of 446 precincts had reported as of this writing, voter participation had increased 5 percent to 22 percent, and is sure to increase as all precincts report in.

Another way to raise voter participation is give voters a choice in whom to vote for. Of the 63 races on the primary ballots, 17 candidates were elected as they ran unopposed from challengers in their own party and they are unopposed for the general election. A further handful had inter-party challengers but will not face any opponent in the upcoming general election. Without the incentives given by the closed ballot, the required party building will not occur, and the number of candidates will not increase.

In the September 2000 Election News newsletter, produced by the Alaska Division of Elections, the record low voter turnout was partially blamed on having voters choose between two ballots - the open ballot and the Republican ballot. Yesterday, with six ballots, voter participation increased significantly. But just as the Division of Elections was wrong two years ago to base a conclusion on a single measure of multiple ballots, it would be incorrect to conclude that the rise in voter participation is due to closed ballots. Instead, the closed ballots may have caused people to become more involved in party politics and this increased interest brought people back to the polls.

Storey, of Fairbanks, has degrees from the University of Chicago and from Whitman Collage.

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