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Democracy Works

135 EpisodesProduced by Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy/The Democracy GroupWebsite

Examining what it means to live in a democracy


The case for open primaries

In about a dozen U.S. states, the only people who can vote in primary elections are those who are registered with a party. Republicans vote in the Republican primary and Democrats vote in the Democratic primary. This leaves out independents, who make up a growing share of the electorate. This week’s guest argues that’s problem for democracy.

Jeremy Gruber is the Senior Vice President at Open Primaries.  He is a lawyer, writer, and internationally recognized public policy advocate who has helped enact more than 60 state, federal and international laws and regulations. He joins us to make the case for why all primaries should be open, and how our democracy will be stronger because of it.

But what happens to the parties in an open primary system? We’ve talked on the show before about the role they play as gatekeepers in our democracy and revisit some of that discussion in this episode.

ICYMI, we are holding an event at the National Press Club on October 22. It would be great to meet some of our listeners in the area. More information at

Finally, thank you to our brand new sponsor, Penn State World Campus. Learn more about Penn State’s online The Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Psychology of Leadership degree at

Additional Information

Open Primaries website

Interview Highlights [6:10] How do open primaries work?

Every state has different election laws, and in most states the primary election, which is the first round of elections that voters have an opportunity to participate in is often times in most cases run by the parties. Even though the tax payers pay for the elections and you, as a voter, experience those elections the same way you do as the general election, the parties are the gate keepers of the primary elections, and they can decide who can and can’t participate.

In a closed primary state, only members of the parties may participate in the primary. In an open primary state, Independents, unaffiliated voters, can participate in the primaries. In some states, like California, Washington, Nebraska, they have a nonpartisan primary system where the parties don’t run the primaries. The state runs the primaries the same way it runs the general election.

[8:35] How many states have open primaries?

38 states have some form of open primary, and that can vary state by state. Most of those states have a traditional open primary,  where you as Independent choose a ballot line. Not every primary election in those states are necessarily open, but at least some of the elections are open to unaffiliated or Independent voters. 12 states have a completely closed primary, where only members of the parties may participate in the primary election.

[12:15] How does a state moved from a closed to an open primary?

There’s generally three ways that primaries have been opened in various states. The first is through ballot initiative. California, for example, adopted a top two nonpartisan open primary via ballot initiative. Second is is through legislation. Pennsylvania’s legislatures is currently considering an open primary. And finally there’s the parties themselves, because the Supreme Court has ruled in a very important case called that the parties have an absolute right to open their primaries to Independent voters if they choose, without any act of a state legislature or any other body, for that matter.

[13:49] How does an open primary impact voter participation?

Open primaries are about enfranchising voters. With 43% of the registered voters being independent, simply allowing them to vote is a critical and perhaps and most important outcome of open primaries is letting every voter vote in every election. Studies have looked at traditional open primary states versus traditional closed primary states have certainly seen an increase in voter participation.

[17:40] What role should the parties have?

Parties are going to, to exist, and they do play a role in helping put out the views of their members, and organizing voters and sharing information. There, there’s all kinds of value that, that parties have and they’re important to a functioning democracy. The question is not whether, should there be parties or not? The question is, what is the role of the parties?

When parties play a gatekeeper role, they are changing the relationship between the voters and their democracy. And when parties start to play a gatekeeper role, voters start to lose their power. They start to lose their choice in a democracy, and they start to lose the ability to vote for who they want to in every election. Parties should compete in elections. They should participate in elections, and they should put forth candidates in elections, and all the valuable things that parties do. But parties shouldn’t decide in a functioning democracy, who can and can’t vote.

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