Since publishing my article on youth voting, I have come to the realization that I was wrong. As much as my civically-minded, Eagle Scout self would like to be cheering on voter participation, we should not be encouraging our young people to vote in primary elections. Instead of inspiring 17-year olds into a lifetime of voting, it may well have the opposite effect: disillusionment, disenchantment, and voter apathy.
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Parties are only as good as the names on the ballot. In the Democratic primary in Cook County, the vast majority of races are running unopposed. In the Republican primary in Cook County, most are also unopposed or worse non-existent. Very few races have multiple qualified candidates. As President George Washington famously warned in his Farewell Address, parties “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people.” In other words, we think we have the power, but we really don’t.
And to support our illusory control of the powers that be, we pay a lot of tax dollars. Primaries have been a cost concern since the very beginning of its use in the early 20th century. Indeed, in just Cook County, the 2012 elections, primary and general, cost $25 million dollars and were cited as one reason for the county’s budget deficit. While I am not sure that such criticisms are fully justified, primary elections cost the state millions each election cycle. Are there no better uses for these funds (perhaps, education, crime prevention or health care cost reductions)?
Yet as party politics aren’t going anywhere, there is at least an alternative form of primary that is far more deserving of the youth vote and of our tax dollars. Its name is the Open or “Top Two” Primary. These primaries are nonpartisan. Each position lists out all candidates for each position regardless of party. The top 2 vote getters for each office are then brought through to the general election. California, which recently joined Louisiana and Washington in this system, has already seen an increase in genuine political competition. Here are just some of the benefits that an Open Primary system could bring:
1) More competition on General Election Days: While downstate Democrats and Chicago Republicans exist, they are few and far between. Under the current system where the Republican winner might run unopposed in the general election. With Open Primaries, the top two candidates for an office in Peoria would compete in the general election EVEN if they are both Republicans.
2) Stronger information campaigns: By increasing competition for most office, candidates will have to do a better job explaining why people should vote for them.
3) Avoids “Special Interest” Candidates: In theory, candidates wish to have similar views as the Median Voter. In practice party primaries make this impossible. The average Democrat’s policy stances is not the same as the average Illinoisan’s. By opening up the primary to everyone, for once candidates might have trouble pandering to the base and succeeding.
4) More room for Third Parties: By not forcing people to register for a third party primary, parties such as the Green Party are likely to gain more exposure and perhaps make it on to more general ballot races.
5) Does not increase the cost to taxpayers: For all these benefits, there is no additional cost for the elections. We already pay those $25 million for the primary and general elections. They are just now being used to promote more meaningful, democratic elections.
While it is too late to introduce a citizen-proposed Constitutional Amendment this election year, I encourage young voters to take on politics rather than fall in line. Start by contacting your representatives in Illinois and asking them to call referendum for a “Top Two” Primary. This will likely take some time, but the first step is letting them know the status quo is unacceptable. You can find their addresses here.
If you want, you can copy the text below:
To whom it may concern,
I am a constituent in your district who is concerned about the current primary election system in Illinois. I call on you to introduce legislation calling for a referendum on the establishment of a “Top Two” primary system. This system will make the system more democratic and less partisan.
(Insert Name Here)