Editorial: Open primaries

Opening the primary elections to allow all unenrolled registered voters to cast a ballot will rejuvenate the political parties and strengthen elections.

Today’s candidate selection process is backward. The major political parties sit as neutral referees with no real authority to influence who seeks their party’s nomination. The current practice allows anyone and everyone with a desire to run for office representing a major political party to do so without any ability for the party membership to weigh in up-front. Voters have observed that “any screwball can get his name on the ballot.”

With no ability to influence who makes up the slate of candidates, the party membership under our current system is left to select a winner from this self-promoted group of contestants regardless of their qualifications or viability. Ultimately, it is nothing more than a beauty contest. The apparatus of both the Democratic and Republican parties appears to stagger without will or power from one election cycle to the next until it is occupied as the host body by the dominant politician of the moment. High-profile examples in the last presidential contest include Bernie Sanders’ obscure conversion as a Democrat and Donald Trump’s late-in-life epiphany to become a member of the Republican Party.

To be clear, as citizens we have not succeeded in correcting this distortion. The solution that best serves the democratic process and provides value to the electorate is to reform the function of the political parties rather than destroy them.

We have experienced our own candidate maladies here in Maine elections that could have been avoided with a more rational process. A sensible screening and vetting process would avoid placing on the ballot an attorney whose license to practice law has been revoked, especially when the office sought is district attorney. Nor might a person make the ballot after falsely claiming to reside in the political jurisdiction the individual hopes to represent when, in fact, he or she does not. Finally, a better process might do away with the “placeholders” who clearly and unequivocally state that they have no interest in serving and will resign immediately if selected.

The political parties should screen prospective candidates and then advance the best of the best onto the primary ballot to go forward and compete for the support of the voters.

Since the authority and legal capacity for political parties to serve the voters as effective intermediaries has been gutted, the candidate selection process has devolved to the current model, which is essentially an open candidate ballot in early spring and closed primary vote in June. It is time we turn the status quo on its head, reverse the current approach and empower the parties to select the slate of candidates that appear on the primary ballot and then open up the June primary election to allow and encourage unenrolled voters to cast their vote.

Even though many unenrolled registered voters describe themselves as independent, the polling data and election results over the years clearly show that independent voters are reliably consistent, splitting their preference and their vote by approximately half Democratic-leaning and half Republican-leaning with only a small percentage considered truly swing voters.

Open primaries will include all voters in the process. It will help avoid “lesser of two evils” voting and help ensure general election voters have good choices among qualified candidates.

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