Lisa Brinton (opinion): Open primaries or election reform? CT needs both

Lisa Brinton is an Independent candidate for the state Senate seat in the 25th District, which represents Norwalk and Darien.

Lisa Brinton is an Independent candidate for the state Senate seat in the 25th District, which represents Norwalk and Darien.

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

Roughly 41 percent of voters in Connecticut do not identify with either major party and are excluded from the primary process. We lag most states in election reform such as open primaries, equal ballot access, early in-person voting or ranked choice. Both parties claim and counter-claim a desire for fairer and freer elections — yet ignore reforms that would increase turn-out, improve proportional representation and tamp down party extremism.

In 1984, Connecticut’s Republican Party adopted a rule that unaffiliated voters could participate in their primaries. It was challenged by the secretary of the state, claiming it violated a 1956 state statute, allowing only party members to vote in primaries. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court where it ruled Connecticut’s closed primary law unconstitutional, basing it on First Amendment rights of political parties to associate with whoever they want. After the ruling, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing procedures where unaffiliated voters “could” vote in a primary, if the parties amended their rules. Neither major party has taken the issue up since.

Among the world’s democracies, the United States has the worst ballot access laws. Each state writes its own. Ballot access refers to the rules and procedures regulating how a candidate, political party or initiative is allowed on the ballot and who can vote. Written by the two parties, the rules deliberately penalize third parties, who must petition every cycle, use placeholders, cross-endorse, or lose the ballot line, starting all over again.

Open Primaries tracks U.S. state primary data and the major party rules for participation. Connecticut is among a handful of states still maintaining closed primaries. Only those registered with the two major parties can vote. Thirteen states hold closed primaries: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Reform has been enacted in 11 states, where Democrats amended their rules to allow independents to participate, including: Alaska, California, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico and Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Washington. North Dakota has no voter registration. The remaining states have open primaries, where unaffiliated/independent voters can choose either a Republican or Democrat party ballot. In 2021, Maine passed legislation permitting independents, roughly 32 percent of their voters, the right to pick a party ballot and vote in primary elections in 2024.

Open primaries represent one reform that would advance democracy, promote proportional representation, and weed out extremism. Other initiatives include the following:

Equal ballot access. Easier access and funding for third parties to drive issues major parties won’t discuss.

Early in-person voting. Early voting length varies from state to state — ranging from three to 46 days, with the average 23. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Connecticut is one of four states not allowing it, including Alabama, Mississippi and New Hampshire. Making it easier to vote, in person, with ID, reduces absentee ballots and concerns over fraud.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). According to Fair Vote, 55 cities, counties, and states, use RCV, where voters aren’t limited to picking one option as a winner take all. Instead, candidates rank preferences, first, second, third choice until a candidate wins a 50 percent, plus one majority, supporting more consensus building.

Term Limits. Legally restricting the terms, a person may hold office is seen as a way to combat gerrymandering and reduce lobbyist and special interest influence, as well as patronage jobs or pay to play contracts at state and municipal levels.

Ballot Initiatives. Proposed laws placed on the ballot on behalf of citizens provide an additional path for voters to enact changes outside the two-party system.

Eliminating Partisan Election Officials. Connecticut is the only state in the country that guarantees election administration to two major party elected officials, a Democrat and Republican Registrar of Voters. Moving all election operations to a non-partisan election administrative official, would streamline the process.

There will be a constitutional question on the November ballot regarding the ability for the General Assembly to provide a process for early voting in Connecticut. While appearing to be a good first step, it still gives all the power to a Democrat controlled state legislature and governor’s office to determine the rules. Without other reforms, Connecticut still silences the majority of voters who chose not to identify with a major political party.

Lisa Brinton is an Independent candidate for the state Senate seat in the 25th District, which represents Norwalk and Darien.