Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Open Primaries - A Primer

With all the discussion and talk about the Liberal Party of Canada moving towards a primary system, and most of the talk being on the so-called "open primary" model, I thought it would be a good idea to quickly go over what exactly an open primary is.. Sort of a political nerd's Q&A. And yes, I asked all these questions to myself.

Q: What is a primary?
A: A primary is essentially the system by which a party selects their candidate for an upcoming election. We would call it a "nomination meeting" in the case of riding-level organizations, or a "leadership race" in the case of who leads the party. There are several different types of "primaries," but the main choices you have are a "closed" primaries, and "open" primaries, with other types littered in between. Primaries can also be sponsored by the government, or sponsored entirely by a party. But overall, there is no major difference between what we currently do to elect candidates and the leadership, versus what, say, American primaries do (except that American primaries have both parties participating, key fact).

Q: What's an "open primary"?
A: An open primary is when the process of selecting a candidate is open to everyone. Any person who is willing to take their time out to vote for a candidate is allowed to vote, whether or not they're registered party members. The idea is that the more you throw open the doors, the more you can claim there's been democracy at work.

Q: Doesn't that open the doors to abuse from other parties?
A: Why yes, it does. Or at the very least, it makes it a lot easier. Even closed primaries are subject to possible abuse from other party members, since all it takes is a small fee and you can vote in an one-member, one-vote system. In an open primary however, you don't need to even sign up. That's one of the main criticisms of the system.

Q: So, is there a way to stop abuse?
A: There are ways to cut down on possible abuse, mostly by excluding individuals that have held or currently hold other party memberships, and only allowing those who are party members or non-affiliated individuals to vote. However, this is a lot more effective in the United States, where American a huge chunk of American voters are classified as either "Democrat," "Republican," or "Independents." known as partisan registration, and primary systems can keep out Republican voters in Democratic primaries, though still have the doors open to Independents (which, by the way, is known as a semi-closed primary). Canada has nothing like this.

Q: Is partisan registration needed to stop abuse?
A: I would say that, no, it's not needed in an ideal situation, but Canada's situation is not ideal. The problem is - and correct me if I'm wrong - that Elections Canada doesn't keep track of party memberships, and even if they do, they don't seem to share it often (this is in personal experience). That is an aside fact because membership in parties in Canada is unlikely to reach above 600K at any given point, and that's being generous. Let's just note that there were +900K Con voters in Alberta alone in 2011. It would not be hard to slip through.

Q: So you're saying there's no way to make it accountable?
A:  No, I'm saying that there is no way to give it a perfect level of accountability. But there are ways to decrease your risk. One way of keeping track of voters is to see who's been donating to which party, something that Elections Canada does keep track of and makes public, so long as it's over $200. It just requires that voters are registered at the door or in advanced, so we can check against a list. This and other ideas can keep raiding at a minimum. It requires foresight, however, and it's not perfect. The question is whether or not you want to take the risk.

Q: Do open primaries increase the likelihood of voters voting for a party in a general election?
A: I hate to say it, but there's no tangible evidence that it does. Outside of the US, very few parties or countries use the primary system. Some, like the Colombian Liberal Party, haven't had their outlook improve, though in the same country, the Green Party's primary elections may have helped it improve. One case where the Westminster system was subjected to an open primary, the selection of the Conservative candidate in Totnes, was acclaimed as a success - however, the problem is that Totnes was already a Conservative hold. There's no proof either way, since there are so many other mitigating factors.

Q: I heard the Alberta Liberal Party held an open primary, is this true?
A: In a very technical sense, no. The ALP held what was akin to a closed primary, since voting was available only to party members. However in practice, it was an open primary, because memberships were free and came with little to no strings attached.

Q: Is the ALP's system the correct way of doing things?
A: In my personal view, if you're going to hold an open primary, hold a real open primary, otherwise you risk embarrassment. Case and point is with the ALP, who despite signing up 28,000 members, failed to get 20,000 of them to vote. Another point as well is that maybe 4,000 actually donate to the ALP, meaning they held an expensive leadership election with little in the way of return.

Q: If the LPC moves to an open primary system, does it mean that the dues-paying membership has less say?
A: In a certain way, yes. While the donating member will always have a major role to play in the finance and structure of the LPC or any political organization, allowing non-members to vote on candidates and leadership contenders takes away from the weight of actual members in the Party. After all, if you're a candidate, you're going to appeal to where the votes are, and it's not too hard for a gaggle of non-members to easily outnumber an EDA membership (harder in a leadership race, but still a possibility). One way to combat this is by giving members more weight in votes than non-members - ie., a non-members vote is worth only half of a member's vote. It is discriminatory, but there's a valid reason for it.

Anyways that's all - if you have any further questions, ask in the comments below and I'll answer them the best I can.


  1. Many thanks for this very useful summary of primary systems. The best thing we can do is make sure the level of knowledge of both LPC members, the public in general, and the media in particular, is increased to the point that they understand what happens.

    This will lessen the risk of silly articles being printed in the newspapers, like some we have seen recently.

    Would you do all of us a favour and consider further articles on two subjects?

    They are (1) one-state primaries (perhaps the Californian one is the best and most recent one) - there is no need for the LPC to hold primaries in each province or in regions of the country - we could hold one for the whole country on the same day; and (2) what improvements the LPC could make to existing primary systems so that the party can extract the maximum benefit from the whole exercise.

    An example of the second item is the role of debates before the primary - should all candidates debate? How many and where? What format should be used? What topics should be covered? Who should ask the questions?

  2. We had a discussion of this at the Young Liberals BC round-table last summer. We were quite enthusiastic about the primary idea. I proposed that we have regional staggered primaries because that allows candidates to be examined by smaller electorates, if I recall. I like your idea of screening a supporter list against the donor list

  3. I'll consider it, Cat.

    And it's good that this is being discussed somewhere. Keep up on it Calivancouver. And don't be afraid to credit any good ideas to me either!