More on open primaries

In a previous post proposing ways to increase the role and power of backbench MPs in Ottawa, I suggested that parties use open primaries to select their candidates in each constituency. By this I meant letting all registered voters in the riding vote for which candidate they prefer, rather than limit the vote to members of the party only, which is current practice. I wrote:

When candidate selection is top-down, parliamentarians tend to reflect the values of whoever happened to be the party leader when they began their careers. It means parties are slow to sense, let alone respond to, changes in the national mood. I think we forget that once elected, an MP is to represent all of their constituents, not simply those who voted for him or her. If they owe not simply their election, but their selection as party candidate to the electorate at large, it will be increasingly difficult for them to “forget” about the voters once on Parliament Hill.

Recently, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson has proposed that Canada’s Liberal Party consider implementing an open primary system to choose its next leader. Ibbitson writes:

Right now, the Liberal leader is directly chosen by party members. But it costs money to join and who would want to? People who belong to political parties aren’t entirely normal.

In the United States, you have to register to vote. Everyone who registers as a Democrat or a Republican has a say in that party’s leadership contest through the primaries and caucuses.

This weakens the party elite because outsiders such as Barack Obama (or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter) can do an end run around the establishment by appealing directly to voters. Because the weaker a party gets, the more powerful its few surviving poobahs become; a strong party will have a broad base and a weak elite, the very opposite of today’s Liberal Party.

Renewal could come for the Liberals if a leadership contest galvanized hundreds of thousands of people to, say, take out a free one-day party membership so they could vote in the New Brunswick primary, which everyone would be watching because the Northern Ontario primary the week before had vaulted an unknown but charismatic minority candidate into the front ranks of the contest.

Yes, fundraising would be an issue, given the campaign-contribution limits; yes, the Conservatives might try to fix the contest (although that’s really not very likely). But think of the mailing list!

Or the Liberals could carry on with an old leader, a plethora of commissions and grasstops instead of grassroots. In which case, their party will die.

As I stated in my earlier post, and as Ibbitson writes here, primaries are common in the US, and perhaps partially explain why US political parties are such weak entities when compared to political parties in Westminster style parliamentary systems. Party discipline is very important in the Westminster parliamentary model of government because it is governments, not individual Members, who are held accountable. We don’t directly elect our head of government, or even the government – we elect a Parliament, and it is that elected Parliament which determines which party or group of parties will form the government, and that determines which party leader will end up being Prime Minister.

However, primaries could still work in countries such as the UK and Canada. They wouldn’t be as open as they are in the US, where the party executive has no real say in who presents themselves as a candidate for that party in a primary. Persons who wanted to put themselves forward as a candidate for a certain party would still have to be a member of that party, and ultimately, the party executive could veto any potential candidate they weren’t entirely comfortable with. However, once a number of candidates had come forward, the selection process would be opened up to all registered voters in the constituency (for a local candidate) or nationally, as Ibbitson proposes for a party leadership race.

The main concern for many is what Ibbitson casually dismisses in his penultimate paragraph, that other parties might try to fix the contest. I myself had wondered about that in the US system – surely if one is a die-hard Democrat, you would be tempted to vote for the weakest of the Republican candidates in an open primary so as to better the odds of the Democratic candidate winning in the election. And perhaps some party diehards would vote that way – if they even bothered to vote in a primary to choose a candidate for another party. But as Ibbitson writes, that’s not very likely.

Ultimately, as a voter, my main desire would be to have the best person representing me. In marginal ridings – meaning ridings that are hotly contested by two or more parties, I can’t guarantee that the party I prefer will win. Or it could be that the party I prefer definitely won’t win, and so in all likelihood, my representative will be someone from one of the other parties. Faced with this reality, then yes, I would want to ensure that each one of those parties ends up with the best candidate possible.

Parties could easily avoid a scenario wherein they might find themselves with a weak candidate selected by simply working harder to attract strong candidates. I’ve previously written about the problem of placeholder candidates – where a party will quite literally choose any warm body to be their token name on the ballot in ridings they normally have little chance of winning. There is also the problem of “safe” ridings, ridings which are almost always won by one party. In those ridings as well, parties will often run candidates who are favourites of the party executive or leadership, but who might not be particularly well-liked by constituents – including supporters of that party. Attempts to challenge that candidate’s nomination will often be undermined by the party executive. If there were open primaries in place, parties could no longer afford to indulge in either of these practices.

Ibbitson writes that “People who belong to political parties aren’t entirely normal.” This might strike keen supporters of political parties as an unfair assessment, but it is true that being a registered, card-holding member of a political party, at least in Canada, is not the norm. Even most people who are quite keenly interested in politics are not members of political parties (although they might be strong supporters of a certain party). I don’t have any current statistics, but in a detailed report on parliamentary reform (PDF) written in 2008, Thomas Axworthy notes:

Less than one Canadian in ten did anything to help a candidate, such as attending a rally or putting a sticker on their car during the Federal  Election  in  2000. Of  the eight to ten per cent of Canadians who were engaged more robustly in election campaigns, only about 1-2% per cent were consistently active members of a party, placing Canada at the bottom of the list of Western democracies. This tiny  minority of active party members is comparable to the United Kingdom, where two to three per cent of voters are active partisans. (p. 20)

Is it right to leave party candidate selection and party leadership selection in the hands of such a small group of people, who, when push comes to shove, are probably more concerned with what they think is best for their party, not the country, when they decide who their candidates and party leader should be?

(Update 24/08/2011: John Ibbitson has advocated open primaries for the NDP as well in this column. See also this post on the problem of declining party membership.)

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