Analysis: Party leaders debate opening primaries to unaffiliated voters

? For nearly a century, Kansas has had primary elections every two years on the first Tuesday in August so Republicans and Democrats can pick nominees for offices ranging from county register of deeds to governor.

Whatever the mood of the electorate, the rules remained the same: To vote in a party primary, voters had to declare their allegiance to that party.

But a recent federal appeals court decision injected some volatility into Kansas politics, giving the parties the right to open their primaries to nonparty members, despite a long-standing state law against the practice.

The court ruling left leaders in both major parties, but especially Republicans, wrestling with how a new group of voters might influence their elections.

State GOP Chairman Dennis Jones announced Friday that his party would open the primary to unaffiliated voters. Democratic Party leaders planned to make their decision this week.

Moderate influence

Traditionally, in states with closed primaries, people who consider themselves independent voters, without strong party ties and perhaps only a passing interest in politics, show up in small percentages. That leaves a lion’s share of the influence to the most committed partisans.

“They tend to be on the right in the Republican Party and on the left in the Democratic Party,” said Ken Ciboski, a political science professor at Wichita State University.

He added that with a more open primary, “More moderate types may turn out.”

Jones said after consulting with other prominent Republicans, he decided to open the primary because of the party’s desire to be more inclusive and to open up the process.

“Strengthening the primary electorate with the addition of 400,000 independents will lead to stronger candidates, stronger officeholders and a stronger Republican Party,” Jones said.

Reason for change

In April, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver struck down an Oklahoma law limiting participation in that state’s primaries to party members and unaffiliated voters. The appeals court said a state could not restrict a party’s ability to define who may participate in choosing its candidates.

Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, Kansas’ chief elections official, then asked both major parties to decide by Thursday’s candidate filing deadline.

The parties could continue with closed primaries, allow unaffiliated voters to participate or allow participation by any nonparty member, even voters registered with another party.

The Kansas GOP’s decision to open the primary to unaffiliated votes goes against the state’s tradition. Kansas began holding primaries in 1908, and a law enacted that year specified that a voter had to declare an affiliation to be eligible to cast a ballot.

Current state law doesn’t make it difficult for unaffiliated voters to affiliate with a party — they can state a preference at the polls — but they must declare themselves.

Many members of both parties like those rules.

“When you’re picking a standard-bearer, it ought to be by people in the party,” said Larry Tenopir, a Topeka attorney who serves on the Democratic National Committee.

Possible weakening

Ciboski argues that opening primaries to nonparty members weakens the parties. He views the two-party system as vital to American democracy, unifying large groups of voters around common approaches to resolving issues, and organizing political competition around ideas, rather than personalities.

He said the GOP’s change could attract more people to its primaries, but he said those voters were likely to be less knowledgeable about the party’s stands on various issues and its candidates.

“People who identify with a party are more likely to know what’s going on with that party and what the party’s stances on issues are,” he said. “The party pros want somebody who’s going to uphold the party’s good name.”

Effects on turnout

Joe Aistrup, the head of Kansas State University’s political science department, said he was not sure opening a primary to unaffiliated voters would boost turnout across the board.

He said unaffiliated voters were likely to participate only in the biggest races — for governor, for example — or in intense, highly visible contests down the ballot. Aistrup said any effects on turnout were likely to be “episodic.”

“Independent voters are not usually drawn to low-intensity races,” he said. “Something’s going to have to excite them to get them to vote in the primary.”

However, Aistrup acknowledged that if unaffiliated voters did participate in GOP primaries, “More moderate candidates could emerge from the primaries.”


There’s another issue in opening primaries to nonparty members: sabotage.

“What I would fear is that there could be a concerted effort to infiltrate the other party’s primary,” Ciboski said. “They would maybe want to select the weakest candidate in the opposing party’s primary.”

State Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, who called opening his party’s primaries to unaffiliated voters “an excellent idea,” dismissed the idea of such mischief.

“I just don’t view the voters as being that sinister,” he said.

But the possibility of mischief seemed real to Tenopir, who said, “I think too many people want to play games.”

“I don’t like it when people play on the other side,” he said.