A 50 state open primary in 2020 is within our reach

The 2020 presidential race has begun. Early speculation is that 20 Democrats may throw their hat in the ring and that John Kasich may challenge President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE as an independent or in the GOP primary. The narrative will undoubtedly twist and turn between now and the New Hampshire primaries, just 12 months away.

It’s understandable that the prognosticators focus on the candidates. The “will they run?” guessing game draws eyeballs to the political shows and makes great copy on Page Six. But there is an equally important, if less sexy, process underway for 2020 that deserves attention too. This story is not about the candidates. It’s about who will be allowed to vote in the presidential primaries.

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Thirty-three states allow all voters to participate in either the Democratic or the Republican presidential primary. Seventeen states restrict participation to those voters who register with a party in advance, thus shutting out approximately 26 million independent voters, the largest and fastest growing segment of the electorate.

But here is where things get tricky.

The Supreme Court ruled that political parties could allow independents to participate in their presidential primaries even if state election law forbids it. In 2016, the Democratic Party opened their presidential primaries to independents in Oklahoma, South Dakota, Nebraska, California and Alaska. So did the Republican Party in Alaska. Democrat and Republican Party organizations in other closed primary states did not.

This state-by-state process is little understood, counterintuitive and opaque. Primaries are funded by the taxpayers (to the tune of $250 million dollars) and administered by government agencies, but small groups of party officials determine the rules. They will meet in every state next summer and determine the date of the primary, the delegate selection rules and whether or not to let independents participate. The parties then inform the Secretary of State and the legislature of their wishes. Let me repeat, if state election law says “no independents allowed in primaries” the parties do not need to listen. They simply inform the state that they want independents to be allowed in and the state must comply. This has been litigated all the way to the Supreme Court.

Taxpayer funded elections should be automatically open to all, period. But in the short term, we could have a 50-state open primary in 2020 without having to change any laws or amend election codes. All that has to happen is for Democratic and Republican Party leadership in the 17 closed primary states to say, “come on in.”

Democrats are conflicted on this question. The DNC did enact new rules last summer encouraging all state organizations to make it as easy as possible for voters to cast ballots in primaries. But Speaker Pelosi hasn’t included primaries in her omnibus election reform bill and many insiders remain hostile to the idea of letting independents vote. Some Democratic Party big shots challenge the very notion that independents exist at all; they prefer to call them “Democratic-leaners.”

The Republican Party may be worse than the Democrats. President Trump decried New York’s closed primary in 2016 after his children were prevented from voting for him, but he has been silent on the issue since. And Republican Party leaders and legislators in Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee are exploring rules changes to make participation in primaries more restrictive, not more inclusive. The dominant impulse within Republican circles seems to be closing ranks, not enlarging the tent.

Despite stiff resistance within both parties, a 50-state open presidential primary in 2020 is not a pipe dream.

Leaders in both parties may wake up and realize it is in their self-interest to roll out the red carpet to independent voters, whose votes they will desperately need in November in closed primary battleground states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona. The DNC and the RNC penalize state parties if they attempt to move the date of their presidential primary too far forward. They could adopt a similar posture towards the inclusion of independents, penalizing state parties that don’t allow them to cast a ballot. After all, it’s harder to say “vote for us” in November after asserting “no independents allowed” in March.

That party leaders in five states opened their doors in 2016 without national pressure is a sign that things are moving in a positive direction. And the reform movement has grown since 2016, when “the system is rigged” became part of the national conversation. Open primaries activists in Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maine, Arkansas, New Mexico, Missouri and other states are applying pressure at the grassroots.

There is momentum and opportunity but the window to impact on 2020 will soon close. The parties adopt their presidential primary rules next summer. The time to impact is now.

The presidential primaries are unique and unpredictable events. The 2020 version promises to be intense, competitive and high stakes. If the recent midterms are any indicator, public interest will be high. What better way to impact on our hyper partisan political culture than to let all voters vote — the parties have the power to do this and they should.

John Opdycke is president of Open Primaries, a national election-reform group.