Limits of the Two-Party Primary

By Kellyn Brown

Most of us consider Montana’s primaries to be “open” in that anyone can vote by simply choosing to fill out a Democratic or Republican ballot on June 8. But there are limits to that openness since, while you don’t have to register with either political party to participate, you are still pigeonholed into picking between the two. Well, what if you weren’t?

That question is being discussed in a few states across the country, most notably in California during the run-up to its vote on Proposition 14. Many Montanans may loathe West Coast politics, but we should seriously consider ditching the two-party format ourselves. A truly open primary would consist of one ballot for every voter, with the top-two candidates advancing to November even if they are members of the same party.

On its face, the idea of having two Republicans or Democrats square off in the general election would seem absurd. But that’s already happening, though a bit earlier. In the Flathead County Sheriff’s race, three Republicans and no Democrats filed for the office, meaning the winner of the primary is elected. The trio of GOP candidates, especially the two challengers, has stressed differences on everything from their approach to disciplinary matters to the makeup of the office’s administration. If you cast a vote for Flathead County sheriff, you can’t vote in the Democratic primary for U.S. Congress, which has four candidates, nor the Democratic primary for Flathead County Commission, which has two. So if you’re a Democrat, you basically have no say this year in who gets to be your sheriff.

There are also two Democrats running and two Republicans running in the loaded field for House District 8 in Kalispell. Meanwhile, an Independent candidate gets a free pass until the general election, which would not happen in an open primary and is part of the reason many third parties in California are opposing Proposition 14.

Critics fear that opening up one primary to everyone and having a “runoff” between the top two candidates would actually limit debate and be too advantageous to those candidates with the most money. Special interest groups, their theory goes, would heavily finance their chosen candidates and make them impossible to beat.

One problem with that argument is that both major parties also vehemently oppose the open-primary initiative. Their objections stem from the fact that they would have less control in picking their preferred candidates. But the two-party primary can be equally unpredictable.

In 2008, Robert Kelleher pulled an upset in a five-way Republican primary for U.S. Senate and earned the right to face incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. Kelleher had previously run as a Democrat and Green Party candidate, favors single-payer health care and a Parliamentary system of government. Not exactly the state GOP’s top choice. He lost the general election, garnering just 27 percent of the vote.

Also, the two-party primary in Montana still allows for Democrats and Republicans to influence each other’s election. If one party feels secure in their primaries, or if many of their races are uncontested, what’s to stop them from attempting to cross over and vote for the weaker candidate nominated in their opponent’s party to face in the general election?

An open primary – in the state Legislature, especially – could go a long way toward getting more moderates elected, thus breaking partisan gridlock that almost forced lawmakers to extend the legislative session. Winners in the two-party system are often those who tilt further to the left and right than the average voter. This can leave moderate voters with few good options when the general election arrives.

But what’s worse is when one party fields multiple candidates, the other none, and a large portion of the population doesn’t get to vote on the race at all.