Primary elections like we currently have in Oregon have two major problems:
1. Republican primaries are dominated by extreme conservatives and Democratic primaries by extreme liberals because extremists vote more often than moderates. In the general elections more moderate voters must choose between the resulting candidates. We end up with legislative bodies which are polarized and frequently deadlocked.
2. Primary elections tend to include candidates people do not know much about. Most learning about them comes from the media - which may be biased. Media based campaigning is expensive, so financial status may have undue influence.
Measure 90, on the Oregon ballot in November, could solve the first problem. It
eliminates separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans. All voters (including independents) would vote in a single primary election. The top two candidates in this election would fight it out in the general election, even if they are members of the same party.
In such a single primary, candidates would need to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. Extremists in both parties would tend to cancel each other out as they do in general elections. Even in election districts heavily dominated by one of the major parties, general elections would become competitive because both candidates who win in the primary may come from the dominant party.
Unfortunately, Measure 90 would not solve the second problem with today’s primaries, voters’ lack of knowledge about the candidates. Nominees would still be selected on the basis of costly images, not on personal acquaintance. We could solve this second problem by completely eliminating primary elections and going back to having party leaders select candidates.
Unlike the extremists and their special interest supporters who dominate today’s primary elections, party leaders would evaluate possible candidates in terms of their ability to appeal to the majority of voters in the general election. And party leaders would not have to decide on candidates they know superficially only through image-mongery in the media; instead, they would nominate people they know personally and can evaluate on the basis of their actual qualities.
It is true that voters would still have to rely on the media when voting in general elections, but they would only need to learn about two candidates for each office and in any event there is no reasonable alternative if we are to have elections at all. Hopefully party leaders would have weeded out potential candidates who are only image and no substance when they decide who to nominate.
Unfortunately, any proposal to eliminate primary elections would be labeled “undemocratic” and rejected out of hand without serious consideration of the damage they are causing. A campaign to eliminate primaries might succeed in the long run, but it is not in the cards for today.