John Opdycke

Country Before Party

Air Date: October 17, 2015

John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, talks about building non-partisan election systems.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Every four years, our presidential politics are intractably caught in a vicious cycle of polarization. Thanks in large measure to our gerrymandered left-right divide, our guest today argues that closed, single party elections are making our democracy unworkable.

John Opdycke is the president of Open Primaries, a non-profit whose mission is to build open, non-partisan, primary election systems. Opdycke and his colleagues argue that no American should be required to join a political party to exercise their right to vote. Presidential contenders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, while now major party players, have tapped into an anti-two-party insurgency. So I want John to consider how their candidacies can be prescriptive to a sick politics. If we’re going to have open elections, don’t we need open discourse, interparty open debates, if you will? And then, isn’t it incumbent upon Sanders and Trump to fight like hell, John, for those open debates?

OPDYCKE: I wish they would. I wish both of them would—I wish all the candidates would make political reform, systemic reform, changing the system itself a part of their platforms and stump speeches and, uh, you know, central to their campaigns. They’re not, at this point. But I think, I agree with you. I think both of them are tapping into an anger, a dissatisfaction, a, um, a fatigue with politics as usual in this country and I think that’s why both of them are, are doing well in the polls.

HEFFNER: But is a prerequisite to open primaries—now there are open primaries in how many states?

OPDYCKE: Well it varies, it varies, it’s a, it’s a complicated matrix. Some states have open state primaries and closed presidential primaries. Some states have open presidential primaries and closed state primaries. Some are completely open to everybody. Some are completely closed, like here in New York.

And it also varies year to year. Because one of the things that, the framework that we’re working in is that, the Supreme Court has ruled that political parties have a right to determine who can and who can’t vote in their primaries, when the purpose of that primary is to elect a party nominee. So often times a state will conduct an open primary in one year and then a closed primary in the next year.

HEFFNER: Hm, and gerrymandering and the homogeneity of districts in this country that are drawn based on whether you’re liberal or conservative. How does that factor into whether we get an open primary system adopted in most of the 50 states.

OPDYCKE: Well I don’t think it factors in so much as to whether we get it. I think that gerrymandering, I think closed primaries, I think the partisan construct of the Federal Election Commission and how the, the presidential debates are conducted to make sure that no third party or independent contender can participate in them, I think it’s all part of a bigger picture, where essentially the political parties who should be—they’re, they’re private organizations. They’re, they’re not mentioned at all in the constitution. They should be competitors in our election. But in fact, what has happened if over a complicated process, over many years, over decades in fact, is that the parties themselves now run the electoral process.

And so gerrymandering and the, and the reform movement to engage that is part of a broader movement, a systemic reform movement that’s saying the political parties should not be running our electoral system. They should be competitors in it. They should be able to raise money and raise candidates and bring together like-minded people. But they should not be the ones controlling the rules of the game. That’s the, that’s the link between gerrymandering reform and open primary reform and debate reform and other types of systemic change that, that people are advocating for all over the country.

HEFFNER: I think for many Washington outsiders, a glimpse into this, in its most wretched form was when Dick Luger was “primaried” … Someone of, of such note, an accomplished legislator, who, um, bridged the partisan divide on issue after issue, of great significance like nuclear proliferation…

OPDYCKE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Um, what is the tipping point to seeing that we need an open primary system where you vote for the best candidate and not the party?

OPDYCKE: Well here’s, here’s an interesting thing that’s happening now, Alexander, is that for years, independents who are second-class citizens in our democracy, they’ve been fighting for open primaries. They’ve been waging battles at the state and local level, all over the country, without, without a lot of press, without a lot of fanfare. But what’s happening now, because of situations like you’re describing, is that there are party insiders—people like Chuck Schumer here in New York, other prominent Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, um, who are beginning to say … we now have a, a primary system that incentivizes dysfunction and, and polarization, and, um, the lack of any capacity for the, the different sides to come together. So what’s emerging, which I’m very excited about, and I’m kind of right in the thick of this is a coming together of political insiders that want to restore some elasticity, some flexibility to the two-party system. And political outsiders, independents who want to shake up the system and open the door so non-party voters have much more of a say and they’re joining forces and are starting to work together in many different states to bring about a, a, a fundamental re—it’s not just enacting open primaries, it’s redefining what a primary is. It’s saying a primary is not the process of a party selecting its nominee, it’s the process of the voters, all the voters selecting the frontrunners for an election. And that’s a, a, a radical redefinition – and is gaining popularity around the country.

HEFFNER: In California in particular.

OPDYCKE: Yes. We got it done in California and in Washington State.

HEFFNER: Now when people think about California, they think of the recall that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to power. But in all honesty, there was, there was, uh, an opportunity for many candidates to engage in that effort like there are now. So is California the model?

OPDYCKE: Yes and no. Yes, in that California was a, uh, a case study in these different political forces coming together to make a structural change. You have the Chamber of Commerce, you had Common Cause, you had, um, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

HEFFNER: And the outcome.

OPDYCKE: Yes. And, and you had different groups of independents that came together, passed this reform and fundamentally—and they combined it with gerrymandering reform. California now has a non-partisan redistricting commission. And, and, and flipped the switch in California. Now…

HEFFNER: Well tell our viewers the model.

OPDYCKE: The, the model is, you now have, uh, a non-partisan, top two open primary. On primary day, all the candidates are on the same ballot. Democrat, Republican, Peace and Freedom, Green, Libertarian, Independent. All the voters get to vote and they get the same ballot. So, you as a voter, whether you’re an Independent or Democrat or Republican or in a third party, you can choose from among all the candidates for each office. The top two vote-getters go on to the general election. And what this, this has done is virtually eliminated this old model. Which was that you’d have closed party primaries in which the winner of the Democratic primary in liberal areas and the Republican primary in conservative areas would go on to a general election where they were pretty much uncontested. And as such, members of the minority party and independent voters had virtually no say in who their local elected officials were. You had the highest incumbency return rate in the entire country. Three incumbents were defeated in the entire decade of 2000 to 2010 in California. Now, you have much more competitive general elections. You have all the voters able to participate in both rounds of the elections. And you have elected officials who have to be responsive to all the, their constituents. Not just their party members.

HEFFNER: You said sort of. Why is it not the model?

OPDYCKE: Well every state is different. And California—

HEFFNER: But is there anything that, that has been a disadvantageous result?


HEFFNER: In your estimation.

OPDYCKE: It’s been a game-changer in California. It has opened up the, the—now it’s not, it’s n—the wonderful thing about Open Primaries and I’ll be the first one to say it, is not a cure-all. It’s not a, I’m not—

HEFFNER: But you’re searching for a cure.

OPDYCKE: No. No, not searching for a cure, searching for ways to open up the door so the American people can be more directly involved in our democracy. The cure, the fix, the change, the culture change we need to make is that we the American people have to be much more directly involved in our democracy. We can’t sit back an—

HEFFNER: The cure of the disconnect.


HEFFNER: The cure of the disconnect.

OPDYCKE: Yes, is to reconnect. Now what the outcome of that’s going to be, what the specific policy that, that emerges from that, I, I don’t know and I don’t have a need to know.

HEFFNER: Well I understand that you’re non-ideological and that’s commendable. Um, and you just came recently from your retreat…

OPDYCKE: I’m a progressive. I’m a left-wing progressive.

HEFFNER: You came recently from your retreat but, but hear me out. Deconstruct this process for us.


HEFFNER: As we approach the New Hampshire primary because that is an open primary as opposed to caucusing in Iowa, which is an, an exclusive, if you will, inbred process.

OPDYCKE: Right. Well again, the, the primary system is so complicated. Because what I’m describing in California of the top two, that doesn’t apply to presidential. It’s still a partisan process. And that—

HEFFNER: Right, and that, that would be a brave new world.

OPDYCKE: It would, it would be completely different.

HEFFNER: We would hope, right, we would hope that that could be adopted in again creating an environment of openness in the discourse, so you had a Donald Trump on the stage with a Bernie Sanders. If you’re talking about connecting the public to these issues then to have the multiplicity of perspectives would be a net gain. So, when I say deconstruct the process—so talk about your, your cure is this connection to make the American people more intimately involved. So that fewer people are disenfranchised, more people are voting, more people are engaged in our democracy. Right? That’s the, that’s the goal.

OPDYCKE: Yes. I, I think the context for that, Alexander, is, is important. I, the level of disgust, the level cynicism, the level of outright anger at our political establishment is through the roof. I mean, the American people are desperately looking for a way to impact on what they see as a, as a frozen storm. As a, a complete lockdown on any capacity to move the country forward on a whole set of issues. So I’m not, I’m not trying to get people to be dissatisfied or angry with the system. That’s already there. I’m suggesting, and our movement is suggesting, that the, the way we’re going to impact on that is not by getting this person elected or that person elected or the right person elected. It’s by fundamentally changing how we elect people in this country.

HEFFNER: Right — you would say that it’s an undemocratic process by which we elect?


HEFFNER:… Folks today.

OPDYCKE: It’s a partisan process. It’s, it’s—and, and look, you could even make the argument it worked. It worked for many, many years. I mean, the parties, the parties kind of established themselves about four hours after George Washington left office despite his warnings that we should not adopt a party system. We had two parties very quickly. And they’ve, they can take credit for having unleashed, you know, huge economic growth and huge transformation and I’ll, I’ll grant them that. I think we’re at a point in our country’s history where that model, that mode, uh, is just not working. It’s not giving the American people the capacity to express what they want to express.

HEFFNER: And yet the disgust, it may be heightened now, but it was still totally palpable in the last two presidential election cycles. And yet, Americans were unresponsive to Unity ’08 or Americans Elect — efforts that were in the spirit of Open Primaries.

OPDYCKE: Well I would say no. And, and—

HEFFNER: No, that it’s not in the spirit of Open Primaries?

OPDYCKE: No, no you’re right. In, in the spirit. Absolutely in the spirit, absolutely in the spirit. In some ways, Americans Elect was, you know, part of this emerging independent reform movement which has many different organizations and different leaders and, and strategies and philosophies. Uh, but we’re all one movement. I think that where Americans Elect fell short is they were looking to, in some ways, provide a jolt to the system by electing an independent, an independent president. That if you could get an independent into the White House, you could fundamentally alter the political dynamics. I’m saying we have to get not one independent elected. We have to empower the 43 percent of Americans who identify as an independent and give them more, as opposed to look for that one magic bullet.

HEFFNER: So it’s a difference in philosophy and how you’re attack the problem.

OPDYCKE: Yeah, exactly.

HEFFNER: And to give our viewers some context, there were efforts at a virtual primary that would engage the voters to select a bipartisan ticket in the case of Unity ’08 Sam Waterston was the celebrity spokesperson.


HEFFNER: And then later on in 2012, an effort to elect – through a virtual primary, an independent candidate, and some of the higher vote-getters were Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

OPDYCKE: Yes. And they, they won a very, very important court case which was the right to organize a process that could register as an official committee with the Federal Election Commission. A process, as opposed to a candidate committee. That was a huge breakthrough. And I think that ultimately, that will be of enormous value to the American people. The thing that Americans Elect underestimated is that they wouldn’t be able to recruit a candidate of stature because of…

HEFFNER: So, the process…
OPDYCKE: … well the presidential debates are closed.


OPDYCKE: The presidential debates are only open to the, the Democrat and the Republican, they’ve rigged the rules so that a, uh, a third party candidate, even a prominent third party candidate would not be allowed in the debates. And if you’re not in the debates, you’re not a serious presidential candidate.

HEFFNER: We’re going to have the co-chairman of the Debate Commission on this show in the not-too-distant future. I think the process is under review. If public opinion surveys dictated that Donald Trump, for example, excommunicated from the Republican party is running as a third party candidate and getting 25 percent that he, like Perot, would be in the debate.

OPDYCKE: Mm-hmm. Yes. There, there, look there is the possibility of a third party candidate who has sufficient media coverage, a Donald Trump, who’s on every front page of every newspaper, that they could get the 15 percent and be in the debates. That’s their argument. That, that, that there is a safety valve for that. But other than that, there is a using public opinion polling, it’s, it’s fundamentally dishonest. Because the question that they ask voters is who do you plan on voting for? And then they use that information to determine who gets to speak. A more honest poll would be to say to people, who would you like to see in the debates? And believe me, the answers, the responses to that poll would be much different. If the CPD, the Commission on Presidential Debates wants to use polling data, instead of just all the candidates that are on the ballot in all 50 states should be in the debates. That’s a fair criteria. But if they want to use polling data. They have to ask the right question. And they’re not.

HEFFNER: So, to go back to the primary process.


HEFFNER: Beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire, what, where do you want to correct the flaws that exist within the presidential process?

OPDYCKE: It’s very hard to impact on the presidential process. What we’re focusing on is the state and Federal process. And we’re doing that in a number of different ways. We have a ballot referendum going forward in Arizona to enact the top two non-partisan system for all state and Federal elections. We’re partnering with Congressman John Delaney on a piece of Federal legislation called the Open Our Democracy Act which would call for the use of top two non-partisan primaries in every Senatorial and Congressional race in the country. It also makes Election Day a Federal holiday and starts a process for, for engaging the gerrymandering at the Congressional level around the country. We’re working with activists in South Dakota, in Alaska, in Florida to put referendums on the ballot in 2016 or 2018. And we’re working with state legislators in Pennsylvania, in Louisiana, in Mississippi, in Nevada and other states, in Michigan, who are—these are insiders. These are people inside the state legislature who are saying we’ve got to open this up because right now, we’re, we’re existing in a situation of complete dysfunction.

HEFFNER: But the ailment or the disease within our political process is the obsession with the presidential cycle. And every two years, the contest begins. Every year and a half, the day after the inauguration, the process begins. In effect, I don’t want to discount your work but I was very interested and intrigued to hear your insight into the Federal process.


HEFFNER: The, the two party system is funded through, now, unlimited contributions of Super PACs that are going to dictate how we elect the 45th president.

OPDYCKE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How is Open Primaries, or how are you, John, simply configuring this in your mind?

OPDYCKE: Okay. So first of all, the good news about the presidential process is that there’s actually … more than half the states allows independent voters to participate in the presidential primaries. That’s a good thing.

There are states like Idaho and Hawaii and South Carolina which are looking to restrict that right, now. And, and New Hampshire tried it about ten years ago and there was a, a citizens’ revolt to keep it open.

But there are opportunities for independent voters to participate in the presidential primary—in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, um, that’s all good. And in fact, in 2008, when President Obama challenged Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primary, had it not been for Open Primaries, he would not have been the nominee. If you look at the votes tallied, uh, it was his capacity to mobilize independent voters in the open primary states that allowed him to beat Hilary Clinton. If every state had been closed, Hilary would’ve been the Democratic nominee, hands down. So that’s a good thing and we’re working to protect in as many states as possible because there are efforts underway to try to close it down. Um, the, there’s a number of legal fights taking place around the country. But to your point around money, I have a very contrarian view on this. And, and I, I completely agree with the Campaign Finance Reform movement. That the wealthy, the powerful, the insiders in this country have way too much access and control and they have undue influence over the direction of this country. I disagree with how you engage that. I, I fundamentally don’t think that attacking the money is the most effective tactic for engaging the power—the, the imbalance of power in this country between the people and the insiders. I think that going after the party control of the system itself, opening up the process is a much more effective way to deal with the fact that the, the voters in this country have been so systematically disenfranchised. And ultimately, I also think that there are many wealthy people in this country who want to be part of restructuring the political system and I want to recruit them and involve them as well. I think that’s important.

HEFFNER: But the money dominates the two party system, the two party system as you just alluded to—

OPDYCKE: I would say the two party system dominates the money.

HEFFNER: What do you do about the money?

OPDYCKE: Well you don’t. That’s what I’m saying. In some ways, you engage the, you engage the ways that the, the parties have positioned themselves as the official gatekeepers of politics. And they insist that everything go through them, everything, all dollars, all donations, all uh, votes, all candidates, everything, be siphoned through them. Now with Citizens United, you now have, um, labor unions and billionaires able to bypass that to, to a certain extent. But they’re still supporting issues and candidates that fit within that two party framework. It’s not a, it hasn’t allowed for kind of a breakout on that end. But if you look for example, at, at Silicon Valley, up until the, the mid-90s. They didn’t give money to politicians. Their position was keep out of our lives. Let us stay here and innovate, create new products. Just tax us and we don’t want to get involved. And then the, the State Department or the, the—I’m forgetting the specifics. The Attorney General sued Microsoft around anti-trust. And there was the, the kind of a … a recognition that the, the tech industry had to become much more involved in, in Washington and in the regulation and the matrix. They now give millions and millions of dollars to both parties. Democrat and Republican. They give equally.

HEFFNER: But John, until you have the infrastructure that you’re setting out to create, the money is being funneled into the obstructionist model.


HEFFNER: Obstructing the voices. Obstructing the independence. So are you just gonna—

OPDYCKE: But, but I, I don’t agree that turning off that spigot—here in New York we have the most, the model campaign finance program. It’s held up around the country as the solution to big money. There’s no corporate donations. There’s a 5 to 1 public match. There’s a, a system that, that was, is, is lauded as a way to get rid of the undue influence of money. What’s been the impact in New York City politics? Highest incumbency rates of any city in the country, political dynasties, unfettered corruption. There is a, a, a—it’s created a kind of a, just a bubble over the political class where no one from the outside can now challenge that.

HEFFNER: I would just dispute that in the estimation of Lawrence Lessig, for example, of the Mayday PAC and perhaps a presidential contender in 2016 or beyond, that the New York system is the model.

OPDYCKE: The way we are going to engage that issue, which I see as a imbalance of power, that the American people don’t have enough power — is not by further regulating the powerful. But by opening up the system so that the less powerful have more of a voice and more opportunity to participate. I, I just am not focused on further regulating the powerful for two reasons. They always get around it. In some ways, Citizens United—McCain-Feingold, which was a reform, in some ways, set off a feeding frenzy of money. The notion that you can regulate that out of existence, I think, is wrong. But furthermore, even if it works, it doesn’t do the job. It doesn’t, doesn’t engage the lack of power of the American people. That’s my, that’s my philosophy. That’s what I believe in.

HEFFNER: And as we look to the general election, how can we further engage the American people? How can we, how can we, uh, further engage the, the folks who go out and canvas and volunteer but they can’t monetarily support a campaign?

OPDYCKE: Well I think that, I think there’s very interesting conversations taking place in the, in the context of this presidential campaign. I think Bernie Sanders’s campaign is particularly interesting, uh, not for the reasons Bernie thinks it’s interesting. I think that Bernie, if you were to ask him, would, would credit the traction he’s getting, which is significant, I think it’s, I think it’s very important to recognize that Bernie is engaging in this primary in a way people did not expect him to. I think he is ultimately doing well not because he’s got the correct positions on all the issues, not because he’s saying this is what we need to do around the minimum wage and around that and this issue and that issue and healthcare and so forth. I think he’s fundamentally saying Clintonism is corrupt. That we Democrats, we progressives, though he’s an independent, he speaks for progressive Democrats, we can’t settle for the corruption of Clintonism. We have to find a new way forward. And I think that the support that he’s getting and the popularity that he has in the Democratic primary is purely on that basis of going up against the notion that it’s her turn.

HEFFNER: John, it’s true that dynasties don’t cater to openness.

OPDYCKE: They do not.
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] So I, I credit you there. And I thank you very much for being on the program today.

OPDYCKE: Sure, my pleasure. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.