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Montana Politics

What the Republican Call for Closed Primaries Is Really About–and What It Will Do

As expected, the Montana Republican Party endorsed the idea of closed primaries in Montana elections. Terrified by the prospect of moderate voters diluting the purity of their red meat and guns club, the party voted to close out independent voters from primaries.

It’s a terrible idea, not only for Montana elections, but for the GOP itself.

1. They will further polarize our political system.

The worst impact of implementing a closed primary system is that it will further polarize our political system. Mark Siegel writes of closed primaries, a system he once endorsed, “[a]nd if closed primaries reflect the views of the people who represent the breadth of the party, then there is nothing wrong with the contests. But so far closed primaries have led to candidates catering to extreme views — and the red meat that is so tasty to primary voters has not proved digestible in general election contests. It would not take much for registered party members and ideological moderates who are registered to vote to have the ability to choose between reasonable people who seek to be legislators, not gladiators.”

And that, of course, is what the reactionary wing of the Republican party wants: a closed off system that only elects the most conservative members of an increasingly conservative party. Afraid that a Republican who believes that immigrants are human beings or that we shouldn’t demonize the poor might win a primary election, the Essman faction of the Republican Party wants to close off votes to people who share their retrograde views—and make it more difficult for moderates to influence elections.

2. They will drive down turnout.

Montana voters are an independent lot, which explains why, in recent years, we’ve elected Democratic governors and senators at the same time we’ve elected Republican House members and legislators. The state is hardly Utah or Idaho, but instead is a competitive state for both parties, largely because so many Montana voters identify themselves as independents. In most polling, well over a third of Montana voters identify as “independent,” which means they will be excluded from voting in primary elections unless they choose to register with a party.

Open primaries encourage voting. They encourage independents voting. Most dangerously of all for Republicans, they encourage independent-thinking voters to weigh the policies of two candidates before making a decision.

3. They violate privacy

Of late, and very late indeed, the Montana Republican Party has positioned itself as a champion of privacy—for straight men, anyway, and this proposal would violate that privacy. It’s certainly interesting that a party so distrustful of its government would endorse requiring voters to identify their political party as a matter of public record to have the right to vote. 

Idaho offers an instructive example of just how public that information will be:

“There will be a record of who’s a registered democrat and who’s a registered Republican,” said Idaho’s Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.After the primary is over, who voted on what ballot can be made public through an open public records request out of the Secretary of State’s office or your county clerk’s office. “It’s not going to be difficult for people to get a copy of (it), to get a list,” said Ysursa.

Voters should be able to exercise the franchise without having to publicly declare a party affiliation. That Republicans would threaten that privacy demonstrates their newfound commitment to privacy doesn’t even extend to the cornerstone of our democratic system.

4. The idea of cross-over Democrats is a myth. 

Republicans who lost elections this spring were quick to blame Democratic crossover votes, despite evidence that was shaky at best. Republicans cited the influence of Eric Feaver, the head of the MEA, calling on members to vote for certain Republicans in legislative races, as evidence of a grand Democratic conspiracy.

The claim is nonsense. Feaver and the MEA have every right to endorse candidates who have records or rhetoric supportive of public education, and if anything, the MEA’s endorsements reminded a few voters about those positions. Even more importantly, what Republicans may not realize, given their non-stop demonization of public education, is that a lot of teachers are Republicans. I realize that the GOP is doing everything it can to drive teachers from their party, but there are plenty of Republican teachers who vote in primaries.

The truth is far simpler: some Republicans running in primaries were simply too much for even Republican voters to stomach. 

5. It will allow the Montana GOP to give itself another self-inflicted wound.

The call for closed primaries should be seen for what it is: the effort of the reactionary wing of the Republican Party to use the election system to purify its party of moderates, disenfranchising voters along the way. Republican Representative Jeff Wellborn argued that the proposal was a “minority maker,” and he’s absolutely right: the call for closed primaries alone sends a signal that the Republican Party’s tent is shrinking precisely as more voters are choosing to identify as independents. 

Closing off primaries to only the chosen Republican few also serves the purpose of generating general election candidates who are so out of the mainstream that heavily-leaning Republican districts could suddenly become competitive.

The best thing about this proposal from a Democratic standpoint is that it’s just as damaging to the Republican Party as a whole as it beneficial to incredibly conservative individual Republican candidates.

It’s a terrible idea, yet another churned out from the terrible idea factory that is the current Montana GOP.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • After what Jeff Wellborn had to go through with Brooke Erb this primary, I believe it forced him to reevaluate and start listening to his constituents and running a better Campaign! I even jumped in and spoke on his behalf because, the lies Debbie Barrett and the Dishno’s threw at Jeff were total Bullshit. Propaganda. Yea rumor is, and I got this from the top elected people in Beaverhead county. Debbie Barrett and her son in law Dishno were behind that dark money RW superpac pushing Brooke Erb

    The majority of Beaverhead residents didn’t want wingnuts down here. and after the mayors race, where not showing up and voting gave marty’s mayors post to fruitcake Klakken, The voters down here made sure Jay Hanson and Jeff were voted back into the running. NO More nut cases

    I might not be the perfect Candidate for legislature as a Democrat, but my Job is to give all Beaverhead, Silverbow residents a Choice, and a voice that is far saner than the people who back Debbie Barrett and her friends, and a little Left of Jeff Wellborn. So I might not win, but not for lack of trying! But I do a service by speaking to issues important to my citizen backers…. something that Jeff will do is at least listen to more seriously should he get back to the Capital in November!

    Jeff Has turned out to be a good moderate vote for republicans who are sick of stalemate, Couldn’t be a better  guy to have a clean election about!!!

  • RobKailey Wow Rob so you don’t like civility and honesty in a race? Really? First of all since I can continue to speak with some civility and authority about the HR72  district here… and unlike you I get out and talk to real people, and dont hide behind a register as a clerk in the College bookstore…I Have found that people really want a sane government down here. The sad truth is it took folks not voting in the mayors race to reconsider following races here a little closer and better.

    Citizens of Beaverhead county drove out the RW in Brooke Erb, and  Paul Oldynski, and they kept two moderate Republicans in play. SW Montana stepped away from the Biggest old money in our part of the state to do it ….kicking Debbie Barrett and the ERB family to the curb!

    I say bravo Beaverhead county!!! We truly aren’t the land of fruits and nuts down here…. just an undies wedge of idiots left, that includes people who act like you and your brother now.

    All mad and angry because they never get their wish to be someone!

    Look dude, I used to get pissed off about angry people like you now I just laugh.

    I might not win, but Its not from lack of trying and Jeff and I can speak now  as people concerned with their community without calling each others names. We have decided together to be civil for the same reasons…. Moving our area of SW Montana forward.

    If your still looking to pull out your hair in Politics grow a pair and run like I have. Otherwise continue puffing yourself up until you explode… I dont care I have way too many irons in the fire for the Dem community to worry about a guy who fantasizes he is doing great things for his egos like… shitting on other Dems whenever he gets the Chance.

    But we all know you were never a Dem anyway… Just a lesser Bob Brigham!!!

  • Norma, I think you’re confusing Chuck Dishno, a man who’s even older than I am who lives in Dillon, with Chuck Denow (Sp?), a right-wing operative married (I think) to Debby Barrett’s daughter.

  • I propose a change in elections whereby any candidate who attains a certain level of support in a primary, say 15%, automatically qualifies for public financing and a spot on the ballot in the general. Further, holders of licenses to use public broadcasting bands are required to make adequate time available to these candidates for debates and public question and answer sessions, their expense reimbursed by government. 
    Individuals may donate a limited amount to candidates depending on the level of the race, say as much as $5000 presidential, maybe a couple of hundred for a local office, and 80% of those donations are to be reimbursed by government via the tax return system, thus fostering a public-finance system where individuals decide who gets the funding. Corporations, unions, trade associations, partnership or any other business form are prohibited from making contributions. Bundling is hard tor egualte, nonetheless should eb illegal as it merely bypasses prohibitions on corporate bribes.
    A general election is held thereafter to determine the winner to represent the district.There might be as many as five candidates who exceeded the 15% threshold, and more than one may be of the same party, as government does not care about parties. The winning candidate might have less than 50% of the vote. These things tend to self-regulate and no system is perfect, but with more than two candidates in the general, there tend to be genuine choices available to voters. . 

    Advertising is carefully regulated, no music or voiceovers, only the candidate stating views on issues without accompanying emotion-laden photos and images. This would tend to favor people who can speak well and hold a steady gaze while doing so. The public would be encouraged to attend televise question and answer sessions with candidates, with no journalists protecting the candidates, so that questions are not censored or filtered. That too is a difficult goal, but too often we have toadies asking toadies for their opinions even as the toadies all know in advance what the toadies are going to be asking. 

    All ballots are paper and hand counted. Period.

  • Compared to the status quo, of course, this makes participation for non-party voters that much more irrelevant.  If either major party were the least bit interested in a “less polarized,” more democratic and less costly process, wouldn’t we see perennial legislation that was designed to encourage non-party, independent candidates to populate the general election ballot?  Non-party independents don’t need a primary.  What they need is lower filing fees, more reasonable signature requirements, and later deadlies for gathering the signatures required to become a candidate.  Until these barriers to participation are corrected, independents are a captive voting group with few opportunities to vote FOR the candidate most likely to represent them best.  They’re stuck on the “lesser-of-evils” treadmill.

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