“Open” Primaries and the Illusion of Choice

Claremont, CA. On Tuesday, the residents of this fair state voted to “open” the California primaries. From now on, every voter in the state will receive the same ballot in a primary election. In each race, voters can choose among all candidates, and the two candidates who garner the most votes – regardless of party affiliation – will appear on the general ballot.

As my calculated use of quotation marks suggests, I’m not sure “open” is the best way to describe this or similar electoral systems. Open to whom, and on what terms?

This is a system which is effectively going to bar third-party candidates from appearing on the general ballot, which often will force Republicans to choose between two Democrats in a general election (and sometimes vice versa), and which prohibits voters from writing in candidates on the general ballot.

And, as a report from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies predicts, it is going to “significantly” increase the cost of running for office in California, since candidates will have to make appeals to a wider swath of voters. That means, of course, that it will be that much more difficult for non-moneyed candidates to have a shot at elected office.

To add to the fun, no candidate will be required to list a party affiliation on the ballot – thereby taking away one important piece of information from voters who make it to the polls.

I’m sure the citizens whose votes passed this measure, Proposition 14, were attracted to the language of “openness” and “choice” that proponents used to sell it. (Major proponents, for the record, included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and many of California’s biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals, who outspent the opposition by a 20-to-1 margin.)

But this strikes me as further evidence that the language of choice is the hypno-narcotic of contemporary American rhetoric: the disorienting drug that we cannot resist, that lures us in with the promise of a momentary high, that conceals its true nature until too late, that fries our brains.

It’s not news that Americans tend to think of having more choices as having a more fulfilling life, despite the great evidence to the contrary amassed by people like the psychologist Barry Schwartz (whose book The Paradox of Choice is one of the great reads of the last decade).

But more and more, it seems that in this country, where “choice” is a pseudo-sacred concept, Americans do not really see where our choices actually begin and end. Despite all our sanctification of the idea of choosing in the abstract, we don’t understand choices all that well.

Often, as in the case of Proposition 14, we latch ourselves to things because they claim to give us more choices – even when a moment’s reflection would suggest that they might do the opposite. In the case of this law, the vaunted “openness” it promises at the primary level is more than counterbalanced by great restrictions on choosing in the general election.

Marketers have long exploited us by encouraging us to misunderstand our choices in that way; the great fashion retailer George Davies once said that one of the “keys to success in retailing” is “to give the illusion of choice.”

Our choices are so often misrepresented in this culture that we are in effect trained to choose poorly. Having been bombarded by illusions of choice, and illusions about choice, it is not surprising that we often mistake the illusion for the reality. And over time, we pass on those illusions as truth.

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