No national institution is perceived as honest by more than 2 in 10 Americans, as reported by More in Common via their Two Stories of Distrust in America report.
That lack of honesty is tied to a lack of trust. And, that lack of trust applies to our neighbors and our elected officials. For the average American, daily life requires being on guard: more than 6 in 10 Americans say “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” And, for most Americans, their relationship with their representative feels combative more so than collaborative: around 7 in 10 Americans feel like politicians view them as “problems to be solved” rather than “constituents to be served.”
The upshot: A sample of any 10 Americans will turn up a majority of people fed up with the government, unsure of who they can trust in their community, and unsatisfied with their representative.
Unresponsive elected officials.
Each of these pillars of a healthy democracy is crumbling. Though no single solution will rebuild these foundational elements of our civic infrastructure, open primaries are a valuable starting point.
The first relationship that open primaries can restore is that between elected officials and voters. Under a closed primary system, elected officials are incentivized to be the worst sort of colleague — the sort that has favorites, ignores your requests and doesn’t invite you to meetings. This makes sense because in safe electoral districts, those drawn to be “red” or “blue”, politicians in closed primary races only need to win their primary to ensure their re-election. For those Americans with a different party or no party at all, their interests are second-order concerns for their officials.
Open primaries put all voters on equal footing with their elected officials. When every voter has a chance to vote at every stage in the election, elected officials have no choice but to pay attention to all voters, regardless of party. This straightforward shift in incentives frees politicians from feeling beholden to a narrow subset of their constituents.
Open primaries can also help neighbors develop better political relationships. In a closed primary system, parties are the main conduit to political engagement. That means that voters with different or less strongly held ideologies have few means to engage with other residents that share their interest in civic engagement, though perhaps not their partisan passion. Where party control is diminished, organizations with broader and more diverse memberships can fill the void.
As elected officials become more responsive and neighbors become civic partners rather than partisan combatants, an increase in trust will trickle up to the federal government. A government made up of elected officials selected by more voters and responsive to the needs of more voters will help ensure the federal government is serving that same, broader community.
Trust is essential to a strong democracy. It’s an elusive concept and one that takes extensive time and energy to develop, but it’s importance must be at the center of electoral reform efforts.
Kevin Frazier, is on the leadership team at Oregon Open Primaries, a group attempting to put democracy reform on the 2022 ballot. Born and raised in Salem, Frazier is attending UC Berkeley School of Law. You may reach him at email@example.com