Three weeks from Tuesday, Kansas voters will go to the polls to cast primary ballots in one of the most important elections in state history.
But thousands of potential voters won’t cast ballots. Kansas has a modified closed primary, so only declared Republicans vote for Republican candidates, and Democrats vote for Democrats.
Unaffiliated voters can vote in the Aug. 7 primary, but they must officially join a party to cast a ballot. They can do so at the polls.
Some unaffiliated voters won’t do it. They don’t want to join a major party, even for a few weeks, or they may find the process too difficult. As a result, they’ll be shut out of the primary.
Disenfranchising thousands of Kansas this way is troublesome enough. It’s beyond frustrating, though, when you realize all Kansas taxpayers, even unaffiliated voters, are paying for the election, which could cost more than $2 million.
Kansas gubernatorial candidate Greg Orman, an independent, pointed out the unfairness of the process in a recent position paper. “Major political parties that refuse to allow unaffiliated Kansans to vote in their primaries,” he wrote, “should reimburse the state and the counties for the costs of supporting their closed primaries.”
He’s exactly right.
Political parties are private organizations. As such, they should not be able to demand subsidies from taxpayers to conduct elections that are essentially closed to non-members.
Supporters of the current system say it ensures the purity of the primaries: A closed system means members of one party can’t manipulate the results in the other. Democrats might vote for the weakest candidate in the GOP field, for example.
But that fear is overblown. And preventing unaffiliated voters from casting ballots without declaring a party makes the cure worse than the disease.
Missouri’s system is not perfect, but it’s preferable. Primary voters can ask for either major party ballot on Election Day and need not declare a party membership. There is no such thing as a “registered” Democrat or Republican in Missouri.
Spending taxpayer dollars for a system in which every registered voter can easily participate is defensible. Spending taxpayer funds to protect the narrow interests of the two major political parties is not.
Other election reforms are moving across America, including so-called “jungle” primaries in which the top two finishers compete in the general election, regardless of party. In June, Maine used ”ranked choice” voting, a complicated system that supporters believe more closely reflects the voters’ will.
We’re not prepared to recommend either approach in Kansas. But the state’s lawmakers should take heed: Disgust with the major political parties is palpable. An expensive primary in which thousands of Kansans can’t cast ballots reinforces that frustration and could lead to demands for more sweeping changes in the years ahead.