An International Perspective on Independent Voters

By Kaden Pradhan

London, United Kingdom

It is justifiable to argue that open primaries could lead to the subversion of democracy, and not the other way around (Photo Credit: US Embassy in Sweden)

The United States is a vast country. With over 300 million inhabitants and 50 states, its electoral system has to be comprehensive and robust. That said, there are many countries in the world which do not possess the same governmental system, and the way elections are organized can be significantly different. The notion of ‘primaries’ or ‘primary elections’ is somewhat unique to the States—while some nations do ask the populace to decide who will lead a certain political party, some do not⁠—in Britain, for instance, citizens must vote by constituency, choosing which MP they would like to represent them in Parliament, and whichever party or coalition has the most MPs at the end of the election forms a government, with the leader of the party automatically instated as Prime Minister. This means that British people never actually decide who will lead the country, rather, they vote for whichever party they would like to see in power, such as Labour or the Conservatives. While American citizens can theoretically vote for both a Republican president and a Democrat senator, Britons only vote once in General Elections.

Australia is a similar example. Historically, the country has not held primary elections. In 2017, the National Party and Australian Labor Party attempted limited experiments of open primaries, but they were not carried forward; a year later, a motion to introduce primaries for the New South Wales sector of the Liberal Party, backed by the former PM Tony Abbott, was rejected.

The question of whether non-affiliated, independent voters should also be allowed to elect the Presidential candidate for each party is certainly a complex question from an international viewpoint. In many places around the world, voters have no control over their final leader—but is that a good or a bad thing? If independent citizens were to be allowed to choose who to front each party for the Presidential race, does that not give more power to the people? Is it not democratically progressive?

On the other hand, many nations around the world still face issues like rife analphabetism and the lack of education. This raises the question of whether people who are uneducated or who have no awareness of politics should be able to influence the general elections before they even begin. Countries such as Colombia and Costa Rica already have primaries, and perhaps in the future these will be opened. The ‘democratic right to vote’ is often taken seriously, especially in India, where inhabitants of rural communities with little to no education are still encouraged to vote, even if they do not know who the candidates are. Even in this system, however, the leading candidate is statistically more likely to win, and the element of randomness is effectively negated. However, if the same ideology were pursued for primaries around the world, opening them to all citizens, would that not have a greater impact?

There is a tendency to boil such questions down to the matter of ‘who knows best’. Let us imagine that non-affiliated voters can indeed influence which leader they prefer for each party. Does that corrupt the choices made by the core partisan supporters? Does it dilute the spirit of the party? Is it true that registered members, in fact, ‘know best’? It is difficult to judge.

It is understandable why many argue that closed primaries contravene the very spirit of democracy: taking power away from the many, and placing it in the hands of the few. But is it truly ‘few’ people, or just ‘less’? In 2018, there were 110,943,417 registered voters: 44,242,975 were registered Democrats and 32,570,817 were registered Republicans. This seems to be a sizable fraction of the 300 million odd citizens of the U.S. It does not seem to me that closed primaries are designed to benefit the elite or the super-wealthy, rather, they pose the question to about one tenth of the population, which is large enough to be affected by the opinion of the overall nation. Surely, therefore, the idea that open primaries are progressive is statistically irrelevant?

It is also justifiable to argue that open primaries could lead to the subversion of democracy, and not the other way around. The practice of ‘electoral raiding’ is well known in many states. Members of a party vote in (‘raid’) the opposite party’s primaries and select the weakest candidate, thereby increasing the chances of victory during the general elections. This has been carried out successfully in the past. Opposers of open primaries will assert that something similar could occur here. Nonetheless, independent citizens are supposed to be disinterested, which makes that scenario somewhat unlikely.

If these changes were made, it is impossible to tell what the consequences would be. As such, it is almost impossible, in my opinion, to decide whether it is the ‘right’ choice to make. It is difficult matters like this which make politics such a nuanced profession; matters like these which can end up as a government’s most glorious victory or its greatest downfall.