Guest Column

A Top Two Primary System is a Bad Idea for Montana

Our open primary system is not broken. It works well for Montana.

By Steve Fitzpatrick

If you are like me, it is difficult to think of a reason why we would want to make Montana more like California. Nonetheless, this election cycle, there are several ballot initiatives being proposed to adopt California policies here in Montana. One such proposal by former Gov. Marc Racicot and former Secretary of State Bob Brown is to adopt a top two primary election system. A top two system is a bad idea for Montana.

Today, Montana uses an open primary system. In an open primary system, unlike a closed system, voters do not register with a political party. Instead, each voter gets to decide which party primary to participate in.

We have had open primaries in Montana for over 100 years. Open primaries make it possible for all members of a political party to participate in primary elections while also giving the members of a political party the ability to nominate candidates who reflect the values of the party. 

In 2015, I fought to preserve our open primary system by bringing legislation to stop a lawsuit to close our primaries. The supporters of that lawsuit claimed too many moderates were winning Republican primary elections. Now, the opposite is occurring – moderate Republicans are claiming too many conservative Republicans are winning; thus, the moderates want to change our election system.

There is nothing more precious in our democracy than the right to vote. However, that right is meaningless without adequate choice. 

In a top two system, the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election. Instead of getting the opportunity to vote for a Republican and a Democrat, the general election ballot may consist of two Republicans or two Democrats running for the same office. If you live in Missoula, you may never get to vote for a Republican. If you live in Eastern Montana, you may never get to vote for a Democrat.  

A top two system is fundamentally anti-democratic. It is explicitly designed to limit choice and to take away the voice of the minority. It is not a tool to make government better; it is a tool to rig the outcome of an election and to disenfranchise voters.

Contrary to what supporters claim, a top two system does not increase moderation. Partisan voters are still the most likely voters to vote in a primary election. Instead, people stop voting because the general election ballot lacks candidates who share the values of the voter.

A top two system also increases the amount of money in politics. That is because a candidate must plan on running against the same person twice. Montana elections are unique because a person can run for office without spending a lot of money. A top two system will force candidates to spend more time asking for money instead of talking to voters.

Our open primary system is not broken. It works well for Montana. Thus, we do not need to copy California and adopt a top two primary election system.

Steve Fitzpatrick is a Republican state senator from Great Falls.   

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.