Rethink blanket primary


WASHINGTON -- On the face of it, it is hard to quarrel with anything that ostensibly encourages more Americans to participate in the political process. But the California "blanket primary" now being challenged in the Supreme Court does far more harm than good to the process.

The California law, used in a presidential primary for the first time this year, throws all candidates of all parties on a single ballot and allows any voter to choose anyone without regard to party affiliation. Republicans can vote for Democrats or the reverse, or either can vote for a minor party candidate. Three other states -- Louisiana, Alabama and Washington -- have the same kind of primaries.

What these systems ignore, however, is the fundamental purpose of primary elections -- to allow the political parties to nominate their own candidates to carry their standards in the general election in the fall. Republicans choose among fellow Republicans; Democrats do the same.

That original system encourages Americans to identify themselves with one party or the other, either on the basis of the differences they perceive in party ideology or their own self-interest. If you oppose abortion rights, you may be more inclined to be a Republican. If you are a union worker, you are more likely to be Democratic. It's one of the ways people sort themselves out in the political process.

But the pressure to draw more Americans into elections has led to several abridgements of the original primary. Some states have so-called open primaries in which independents can vote in either party's primary election. Others have a modified "open" primary law that allows any voter to cast a ballot in either primary by enrolling in the party at the polling place.

The leaders of the parties have always resisted such softening of the requirements. They argue that in an open system, one party can hijack the other's process by flooding the primary. But there is little, if any, evidence of that happening. On the contrary, most poll-takers say that "strategic voting" is extremely rare.

In any case, valid or not, the force of that complaint has been overwhelmed by the notion that the open primary or blanket primary will increase participation in politics. The 1996 initiative setting up the blanket primary won the support of almost 60 percent of the vote. And, defending the system before the Supreme Court the other day, California lawyer Thomas Gede claimed that an estimated 1.5 million independents were drawn into the primary.

In fact, the increase in turnout in some primaries this year was striking. But the reason was clearly the popular interest stirred by the candidacy of John S. McCain. Voter participation always rises when there is a hot contest or candidate to strike a chord with people.

Moreover, it is far from clear that higher turnout is necessarily worth the costs it may exact on the system. If, for example, the goal is to draw more independents into party primaries, there is an obvious temptation to take more centrist positions on issues. Running as an independent presidential candidate a generation ago, the late Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama used to complain that "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans. If blanket primaries become the standard, Wallace may be proven prophetic.

It is not clear whether the Supreme Court will deal with the question of open primaries when it rules on the blanket primary case sometime later this year. Depending on how different laws are defined, about 20 states have "open" primaries that could be outlawed if participation were limited to those enrolled in political parties, still the standard in most states.

Political parties already have lost much of their role in politics. Americans no longer look to local party leaders when they need a job or help with a sick relative. The bosses are a thing of the past. And these days there are only a few issues -- abortion rights is the most volatile -- on which Republicans and Democrats sort themselves out at the national level. The primary election is one of the few remaining exercises in which party makes a difference -- assuming, of course, the Supreme Court says so.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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