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End the Preferential Primary

I cast my ballot Tuesday and, as usual when the primaries roll around, I only voted in the nonpartisan judicial races.

The reason is simple: I am an independent. I have never belonged to, and do not anticipate ever joining, a political party. However, just like anyone else I have opinions and preferences, and at election time I would appreciate the opportunity to express them in the manner promised me by the United States Constitution.

But because Arkansas holds preferential primaries, I don’t get that chance. In fact, a better term for what we hold here is “exclusionary primaries.” Because though my preference is to vote my conscience, I am excluded from voting at all in many primary elections. Why? Because I refuse to identify myself as a member of one of two private clubs, the Democrats or the Republicans.

And I suspect I am far from alone. All those “undecided” voters you hear about in polls? I’d bet my next paycheck (don’t get excited – remember, I’m a journalist) that the lion’s share of them are political independents like myself. After all, the die-hard party people had picked out their guys and gals early on, and even the lukewarm partisans will have pinned the tail on their donkey/elephant by the time early voting comes around.

But the independent is left out in the cold. Faced with the prospect of having to declare allegiance to an organization I don’t believe in if I want to exercise a constitutional right, I opt for what I see as the ethical path: I don’t tell a lie just to get a ballot.

Here’s what Arkansas – and, in my opinion, every state – should be doing as far as primary races: An open primary. Everybody gets to vote, regardless of their political affiliation (or lack thereof).

You’d still get just one vote per race; it’s just that you’d get to pick your person from ALL the candidates on the ballot. That meant if you strongly backed one of the Democrats in the U.S. Senate primary, but your favorite uncle was seeking the Republican nomination for state land commissioner, you wouldn’t have to turn your back on one in order to vote for the other.

It’s that simple, folks. And I believe this would, over time, result in increased turnout for primaries because more people would realize they truly got to vote their conscience, not just their political party.

Objections? Of course there will be objections, the foremost of which would be, “This will allow the Other Side to meddle in our candidate selection process!” Wake up, folks – that happens already. This year many Republicans admitted during exit polling that they crossed over to vote in the Democratic primaries this year for the also-ran candidate in order to help ensure a runoff that would leave the two leading contenders with more bruises and less campaign cash. It’s gone on for years, and will continue to do so.

And what’s wrong with that, I ask? After all, elections are as much about voting for the right person as against the wrong one, and an open primary would allow voters to cast such strategic votes in the races where that’s most important to them, without sacrificing their right to support the candidate of their choice in other contests.

But there’s an even more important reason to open up the primaries: Because, here in Arkansas, it is hardly uncommon for a race to be decided in the primary. Remember a few years back when the Republican Party here didn’t field candidates for several statewide offices? That meant (barring an unlikely independent or write-in effort) that the primary WAS the general election, and members of the Democratic Party were the only ones who had a say in the person who would fill those offices. And that’s wrong. As a taxpaying resident of the state of Arkansas, I object to not getting a say in whom I want to be responsible for spending my money, managing my affairs, and running my state.

Finally, I believe opening up the primaries would also help ratchet down the histrionic rhetoric that has taken over so much of political discourse in this country. When party politicians can play to the base in the primaries then move to the middle for the general election in an attempt to woo undecided and independent voters, that’s an act of deceit. Once candidates know that independents, undecideds, and members of the Other Side will also have a say in their primary race, they’re going to be forced to be more honest – and that will benefit both politics and governance in the long run.

Our political system is in disarray. Candidates, campaign advisers, pundits, and the media have been promoting the idea that there are Red States and Blue States, which is doing nothing but driving a wedge deeper and deeper into our collective conscience. Does anybody really believe that’s a good thing? Listen: There are no Red or Blue states, counties, cities, or voting districts – they’re all one shade of purple or another. Millions of voters like me would like to add our own color to the mix, and the primaries are where that happens.

I am guaranteed the right to vote by the United States Constitution. I shouldn’t be denied that right just because the two dominant political parties think I have to join one of their clubs before I can exercise that right. End the exclusionary primaries and let ALL the voters have their say in every election. It’s the right thing to do.