Q&A with John Opdycke
Madeleine Doubek: I'm Madeleine Doubek Director of Policy and Civic Engagement at the Better Government Association and I'm joined by John Opdycke the President of Open Primaries, a New York-based non-profit with a mission of advocating for open and nonpartisan primary systems. John's an activist and strategist with more than 25 years of experience working in independent, alternative and reform politics. He's one of the country's most visible and vocal advocates for primary reform. John also has roots in Illinois, having grown up in Evanston. Welcome, John to Ready Set Gov.
John Opdycke: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Madeleine Doubek: So John, you and I connected because we in Illinois have one the earlier primaries around the country and every time we do we hear from people all over the place who get really bothered by the fact that they have to walk into a polling place and ask an election judge for either a Democratic ballot or a Republican ballot at primary time. Your organization is about changing all that. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
John Opdycke: Sure. The issue of how the primaries are conducted has gone from a very esoteric and marginal issue to quite part of the mainstream political conversation in Illinois and around the country because people are starting to realize that the rules of how primaries are conducted are very distortive of the goals and desires of the American people to elect representatives who can move the country forward and go up against the ingrained partisanship that seems to be running our country into the ground. Illinois had a very problematic primary system for many, many years. But for the first time in a long time, people were starting to question it and write and talk about the ways in which the rules of the system are contributing negatively to the political culture in Springfield and in Washington. So open primaries is kind of an effort that's bringing together the Voter Empowerment Movement of Independents with people looking to bring some flexibility and some accountability back to the legislative process. We're we're working on molding those two things together.
Madeleine Doubek: OK. And so are there particular states that you're focusing on at the moment.
John Opdycke: There's activity I'd say right now at different stages in about 15 or 20 states. That can range from you know an activist group beginning to write editorials and state legislators introducing a bill to a full-blown campaign in Florida which we just concluded unsuccessfully to get the Constitution Revision Commission to put a referendum on the ballot. They ultimately decided not to. Despite polling that shows 74 percent of Floridians want to move to an open primary system. So there's there's there's a lot of momentum there's a lot of activity. And yet this movement is still very underdeveloped, very young and the opposition comes from both political parties. It's one of the few issues in the country where the Democrats and Republicans joining forces. They say, "hey we might fight like cats and dogs but when it comes to protecting our control of the system, were united in that." Ultimately, the Democrats and Republicans might have programmatic and ideological differences but they absolutely both agree that they are the gatekeepers and that open primaries threatens the role that the parties play as the gatekeepers to American politics. And that's why I like working on the issue.
Madeleine Doubek: So how do independent voters who already feel kind of disenfranchised fight that?
John Opdycke: It's challenging. You know the independents are going through I think a wonderful growth spurt right now. Independents are creating different groups and organizations and trying out new tactics. Whether that's running independent candidates or building independent voter associations that's happening all over the country at the grassroots level. We're you know forming alliances with Democrats and Republicans who are interested in shaking up the orthodoxies in both parties.
Madeleine Doubek: What's open primaries' short-term strategy and long-term strategy?
John Opdycke: Short-term strategy. We're planting a lot of seeds. There are dozens of states who are having primaries in the next three weeks to three months and we will be messaging and doing outreach in every one of those states inviting people to become part of a national movement to form local clubs and local groups to start working with legislators to introduce bills even though those bills are not going to pass, legislation can be very helpful organizing tool to start building visibility and building a coalition. We're looking to partner with other political reform organizations on other issues at the state level. We're participating vigorously in a national conversation that roughly can best be described as how do we unrig the political system. I've been doing this work for 25 years I've been involved since I was in college in election reform and you know independent efforts and in the last 18 months the last 12 months there has been an absolute deluge, a flood of new voices, new leaders, new organizations, new funders people that are saying, "OK we have to do something about not just who's sitting in the White House or who's sitting in Congress but the very rules of the game." People are coming in with all kinds of ideas and strategies and tactics. At open primaries, we recognize that we don't want to work in a bubble. We don't want to work just on our one little issue. We want to be part of growing the totality of the of the reform movement because we don't know what will work. So even as we're doing these very short-term very specific tactics we're really focused on building a lot of relationships and having conversations within the movement of how do we take this on. Because it's very hard work.
Madeleine Doubek: OK so you were raised in Illinois. Yeah. And you know that there's a long, long history of entrenched political power and a reputation for corruption here. Several of our governors recently have been convicted and sent to federal prison. People tend to sometimes forget that there are other ways to do things. So give us a quick snapshot of some of the different possible ways to run a primary.
John Opdycke: Well I like to talk about California because California in many ways looked like Illinois for a long time. They had the highest incumbency return rate in the country. Only two politicians in the entire state were thrown out of office between the year 2000 and 2010. They used a closed partisan primary, gerrymandered districts, the state couldn't pass a budget, businesses fleeing the state, the level of political dysfunction was through the roof, the voters were outraged and a movement was born and they passed two crucial reforms. They enacted a top two nonpartisan open primary.
Madeleine Doubek: Let me stop you there. What does that mean?
John Opdycke: OK so on primary day in California, unlike in Illinois and in most states, there's not a Democratic primary and there's not a Republican primary. There there's a public primary. So all the candidates for each office appear on one ballot and all the voters can participate and voters choose and then the top two candidates go onto the November election regardless of party. So the parties no longer control the primary. The voters control the primary. You end up with much higher rates of competition in liberal areas of San Francisco or Marin County. You might end up with two Democrats facing off in November or a Green Party candidate and a Democrat in some of the conservative part of the states you might end up with two Republicans facing off or a Republican and a libertarian. And what you end up with is legislators who are accountable to all of their constituents because to get elected they had to face an open primary where they could campaign to all the voters not just members of their own party. And then in the general election, it's one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that 50 percent of November races at the legislative level the candidates run unopposed. That you know so you get rid of that California you get rid of gerrymandered districts. And now California the approval rating has gone from 14 percent to 42 percent. They're passing bills they pass cap and trade legislation they pass a budget on time even if they've enacted gun control in California. And what you see is that voter turnout has gone up. Competition has gone up. The size of the black and Latino caucuses have as doubled the number of minorities running for office has doubled. You get all kinds of new avenues of participation because the fix isn't in. Everything hasn't been pre-determined. That to me is a very effective way to run a primary is actually to say hey Democrats hey Republicans you guys are going to control the primary. The public is going to control the primary. After all, it is paid for with OUR tax dollars.
Madeleine Doubek: People Power.
John Opdycke: People Power. Exactly.
Madeleine Doubek: Three years ago your organization took a look at things and did a survey in Illinois. What did that show you? And how do we inject some of that openness into Illinois? John Opdycke: Well the voters overwhelmingly favor an open system. You know you talk to voters whether they're in Illinois or Pennsylvania or New Mexico. You talk to Democrats you talked to Republicans you talk to independents and you say to them, "Do you think everybody should be able to vote in every election?" And 70 percent of them say, "yes." That's just kind of a basic American fairness issue. The challenge is translating that general support into changing the law. And I'll be the first one to tell you, that road from general support to launch change is a treacherous and long and difficult road. We've seen this in campaign after campaign. One of the things that the parties are so good at is planting seeds of doubt. So they are good at saying hey this open primaries idea sounds good on paper but and then this is what they say to Democrats they say. But if we had an open system maybe the Republicans would start gaming the system and getting conservatives elected in liberal areas and then people like oh no and then they say you know downstate they say you know if you had an open system maybe start getting some of these liberals elected here in Carbondale and people go, "Oh no!" They plant seeds of concern and doubt–and both parties do this–that it's not really reform, it's about one party trying to gain an advantage over the other. And when you've successfully framed it that way, it's doomed. And it's one of the things that makes this really hard is that the parties are both very unpopular. I mean 40 percent of Americans now identify as independent. I mean 50 percent of new 18-year-olds say I don't want to be a part of any party. Congress has a 10 percent approval rating. The parties are very unpopular but they're also extremely sophisticated and skilled at playing lesser of two evils. politics. Of saying to people, "Yeah I know you don't like us but we're better than they are." That makes mobilizing voters to change the system all the more difficult.
Madeleine Doubek: Looking to the future in Illinois if you were talking to your family and friends here what would you tell them they need to do to get something going for an open primary here?
John Opdycke: I'll tell ya, it's hard. First of all, the rules regarding ballot referendum in Illinois are very difficult. We've seen this with the redistricting issue the way it was tossed off the ballot twice. The political machine is very sophisticated at preventing the voters from making these kinds of changes. And our current legal read is that you couldn't put an open primaries referendum on the ballot in Illinois it doesn't fall within the definitions. We had a bill introduced in the house that's no longer there. The legislature is not at all interested in this issue. I mean to say that a bill would go nowhere is an understatement. So I think the most effective thing that people can do is build, is create, is insist that Illinois politics be about more than the horse race, more about the fight between Rauner and Madigan, more than just simply which crook are we throwing out this year and replacing them with which crook. There has to be some ongoing conversation about the system itself. And that's you know again I don't know how you break through and get the law changed. It's so hard in Illinois. The system is just literally rigged against the people being able to change it. But I do know that if the people don't find a way to kind of continuously pressure the media, elected officials, members of Congress, good government groups, civic groups, business groups to say hey we have to move this agenda forward. We're not going to be able to build the kind of critical mass to make the changes we need. And Illinois needs open primaries it needs nonpartisan redistricting and the gerrymandering in Illinois as it is a national disgrace. One of the interesting controversies about Illinois which nobody knows about and I think this is particularly relevant given the big data scandals the Facebook scandals is that when you go to vote in a primary in Illinois unlike many states, that information of which party ballot you choose that becomes not only public information but that information is provided to the political parties free of charge free of charge. And people say well what's the big deal. Well, I don't know if you're if you're living in Cook County and you choose a Republican ballot for you know or a local race. You better forget about...
Madeleine Doubek: Getting your garbage picked up?
John Opdycke: Yeah or your company wants to bid on a contract, forget it! That's public knowledge. You better not do that. Groups like yours can do such an important job of this of just day in and day out highlighting the fact that the political system in Illinois has been set up for the benefit of political insiders and partisans, not for the benefit of the people. And that's not an abstract issue. That's a pragmatic issue. I mean that has a direct link to why the pensions are going bust and elected officials are unpopular and jobs are fleeing and the budget is unbalanced and the schools are crumbling and these issues of political dysfunction are not ivory tower issues. They have everything to do with the struggle that's going on in Illinois on so many different levels and so many different communities.
Madeleine Doubek: It takes a lot of persistence and hard and pressure.
John Opdycke: It does!
Madeleine Doubek: Well, John Opdycke from Open Primaries in New York. You've given us a lot to think about. We appreciate your time. Thank you for being with us on Ready Set Gov.
John Opdycke: Yeah keep up the great work. Thanks for having me on.