Open primary a step toward reform

 
 
Published: 7/22/2010 12:03 AM

Think back to Feb. 2, when voters in Illinois - well, 23 percent of them - chose a ballot in the primary election. The law required that they state their name and party affiliation to a judge who was to announce their choice "sufficiently loud to be heard by all persons in the polling place."

To someone who'd rather that information be kept private, it may have been a little unnerving. Certain voters worry that if their political allegiances are made known, their jobs could be in jeopardy. This is particularly true for government workers and contractors.

Others simply don't want their views known. Many may stay away entirely from the polls.

We think it's time to change that law and we're pleased that Gov. Pat Quinn moved last week to create an open primary election. His amendatory veto would allow voters to receive ballots for each party and then decide in private which to use. The decision would not be made public.

"The choice to favor one political party over another is a personal one and should be between a voter and his or her conscience," Quinn said.

A populist move? A clever campaign stunt? Perhaps that plays into Quinn's action, considering that the revised bill is given little chance of survival. It would require approval in both houses to become law, and House Speaker Michael Madigan is unlikely to take it up.

But political ploy or not, we think it's good policy, and we urge lawmakers, including Madigan, to take a serious look at an open primary election.

They have before, but apparently not seriously enough. Recent attempts to change the law have fizzled, no doubt because party leaders enjoy the voter information they have access to.

The Illinois Reform Commission has recommended open primaries "to combat patronage and prevent intimidation of public employees by party leaders." Fifteen months after its report came out, we are well aware of what little progress has been made. Illinois still has the same redistricting process, no term limits on powerful politicians and only weak campaign finance rules. A General Assembly vote for open primaries would be a small step in the right direction toward reform.

Some say open primaries have the potential to erode the strength of political parties. However, they have worked for years in other states, where party systems have remained vigorous. Californians last month voted to allow the top two vote-getters in each race to advance to the general election, regardless of party. A similar law in Washington survived a challenge in the Supreme Court.

The open primary proposal in Illinois isn't as broad, but perhaps even further steps could be considered, such as allowing voters to choose candidates from more than one party's ballot.

What the proposal does do is provide for privacy in voting and encourage maximum participation. A secret ballot is key to the democratic process. We urge lawmakers to take up this bill again and pass it.