France elects a president this Sunday.
President Emmanuel Macron, whose politics fall somewhere in the middle of the French political spectrum, seeks a second term against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen – a rerun of the 2017 campaign that Macron won with 66.1% of the vote.
“So what’s that got to do with us?” you might wonder.
Plenty, if you care about geopolitics, but there are lots of places where you can read about that. Instead, let’s focus on two aspects of the French election that probably won’t get discussed in Le Monde.
First, the election is on a Sunday. That seems odd to us but isn’t to the rest of the world.
Around the democratic world, the most common day of the week for casting ballots is a Sunday, for the obvious reason: That’s when the fewest people are working. Saturday is the next most popular, for a similar reason. The United States is unusual because we hold elections on Tuesdays. You can argue that, with the advent of early voting, we now have an election autumn rather than Election Day, but the traditional day for in-person voting – and, of course, for counting – is a Tuesday. If we wanted to make voting easier, we could move our elections to Sundays, or at least Saturdays.
The United States, though, tends to be more religious than many other nations, and the idea of holding an election on the Sabbath runs counter to our sensibilities here more than it does in France or Japan or Mexico or Ukraine or any of the other Sunday-voting nations. So we vote on Tuesdays.
The other way in which the French election is notable is how it’s structured, with two rounds of voting.
If no one gets a majority in the first round – and since France instituted this system in 1965, no candidate has ever gotten a majority in the first round, not even Charles deGaulle – then the top two finishers face off in a second run. That’s what’s happening now.
This is relevant to us because that’s similar to the system that Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, once proposed Virginia adopt for elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the General Assembly – i.e., anything other than president or local offices.
In 2016 and 2017, Rasoul introduced measures that would have instituted an “open primary” – or what some prefer to call a “jungle primary” because presumably the “law of the jungle” prevails. It’s everyone for him or herself. Under those rules, everybody – Democrat, Republican, whatever – runs in the same primary. If no one gets a majority, then the top two face off – which means, in theory, that you could have a general election that might feature a Democrat versus a Republican, but could also feature two Democrats or two Republicans. Rasoul touted this as an antidote to political polarization.
“We want to ensure that we have a much more democratic process,” Rasoul told The Roanoke Times at the time. “And this would have more competitive elections, but more importantly, would encourage legislators to listen to the majority of their constituents as opposed to the liberal and conservative fringes.”
Think about how many elections work now. We have so many districts that are so strongly Democratic or so strongly Republican that most voters never really have a choice. Party nominations get settled by a relatively small number of people and then that’s it. Voters reflexively vote for whoever has the “D” or “R” after their name. But let’s look at how an open primary might work in some strongly Republican district in Southwest or Southside. Given the low Democratic vote in rural Virginia, the top two finishers in an open primary might well be two Republicans. That would mean general election voters in November, instead of having a choice between a pre-selected Republican and a Democrat they’d never dream of voting for, would have a real choice. Democrats would be out of luck but other voters would get to choose between what type of Republican they’d like to have in office. Instead of having to appease a handful of hard-right party activists in a convention setting, those Republican nominees would have to appeal to the electorate at large – which clearly leans right of center but may not be quite as right-of-center as those party insiders. In strongly Democratic districts (such as Rasoul’s House district in Roanoke), the same thing would happen, just on the other side of the scale. Out of that, we might get more centrist Republicans and more centrist Democrats – and a less polarized legislature.
At least that’s the theory. As we all know, reality sometimes works out differently,
Rasoul’s two measures obviously never passed. They were killed in committee. Interestingly, one of the legislators who voted in favor in 2017 was then-Del. Jason Miyares, now the state’s attorney general.
The French election gives us an opportunity to look at how the system works – and how an open primary here would be slightly different.
In an open primary, there might be multiple candidates from the same party. In France, the candidates in the first round are all party nominees – but those parties are often more fluid than ours and are often formed around specific candidates. Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, was founded in 2016 to support his initial bid for the presidency. LePen’s party, National Rally, dates to 1972, when it was known as the National Front, so is more durable than most French parties. The left-wing party, La France Insoumise, was founded in 2017 around its nominee, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The party that finished fourth in the balloting – Reconquête, a far-right party – was founded in 2021. The fifth-place party, the Republicans (a center-right party not to be confused with our Republicans), dates to 2002. We have to imagine a political environment in which parties often come and go. That’s not our way. Our parties certainly evolve over time but the basic structure remains the same. Since the Civil War, we’ve always had a Republican Party here and a Democratic Party there, and attempts to disrupt that duopoly have all ultimately failed.
If we had open primaries, would we see the rise of multiple parties like France has? Maybe, although probably not. The complicating factor for us is the constitutionally mandated Electoral College system for presidential elections. If we elected presidents by popular vote – a big if – and if we had a French-style runoff, then we probably would see our two parties disintegrate into multiple smaller parties. After all, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, groused in 2020 that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” We might well wind up with not a two-party system but a four-party one – a distinctly leftist party with Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, a center-left party for Joe Biden, a center-right party for traditional Republicans such as Mitt Romney, and then a further-right party for Donald Trump and fellow populists.
Since that’s not how we elect presidents, open primaries at a state level wouldn’t be likely to rearrange the political system too much. There would probably still be Democrats and Republicans. California, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington all now have some variation of an open primary – some prefer the more straightforward phrase “top two” primary to the more colorful “jungle primary” – for some elections. There are still very much Democrats and Republicans in those states.
Whether an open primary has resulted in more centrist winners is debatable. Ironically, France is Exhibit A for both sides of that argument. Macron certainly comes from the political middle. But Le Pen, from the far right, has made the runoff twice now because she has a core of support big enough to qualify for the top two – just not enough to win a majority nationwide (not yet anyway). More irony: For the second spot on the ballot, Le Pen edged out a far-left candidate by less than 2 percentage points. Had things gone another way, the centrist Macron might have been facing the left-wing Mélenchon and not the right-wing Le Pen. That would change the whole tenor of the campaign.
Since the two extremes often have a hard core of support that doesn’t budge, it’s possible to envision an open primary that produces a runoff between a far-left candidate and a far-right candidate, not a center-left versus center-right contest. File that under “unintended consequences.”
Enough of theory, though – let’s look at practice. How would the open primary system have worked in Virginia in elections past?
It’s hard to say. Virginia Republicans tend not to like primaries very much, so it’s difficult to find a year in which there were both Democratic and Republican primaries for statewide offices at the same time.
The best example we have is 2017, when both parties held primaries for governor. Here’s what would have happened if that had been an open primary:
Ralph Northam (D) 303,531
Tom Perriello (D) 239,285
Ed Gillespie (R) 160,003
Corey Stewart (R) 155,466
Frank Wagner (R) 50,313
Under open primary rules, the general election for governor in 2017 would have involved two Democrats. I can’t imagine Republicans would have liked that very much. Of course, with different rules we’d have had different dynamics – Gillespie, looking at the polls, would have surely urged Stewart and Wagner supporters to back him to make sure there was at least one Republican in the runoff. Still, even if every Wagner voter had switched to Gillespie, that wouldn’t have given Gillespie enough votes to make the final two.
The same thing would have happened in the lieutenant governor’s race – the general election would have been between two Democrats:
Justin Fairfax (D) 252,225
Susan Platt (D) 200,618
Jill Vogel (R) 151,880
Bryce Reeves (R) 141,888
Glenn Davis (R) 60,998
Gene Rossi (D) 59,616
On the other hand, if we’d had open primary rules in 2005, that year’s lieutenant governor’s race would have been between two Republicans:
Bill Bolling (R) 98,941
Sean Connaughton (R) 71,166
Leslie Byrne (D) 37,904
Viola Baskerville (D) 30,083
Chap Petersen (D) 24,992
Phil Puckett (D) 22,400
Bolling went on to win the general election that year over Byrne; the question here is whether he would have won a general election against fellow Republican Connaughton. Who would have done the better job of appealing to Democrats who had no candidate on the ballot?
When we get down to the General Assembly level, it’s even harder to find examples of both parties holding primaries in the same district in the same year – parties with incumbents rarely have a nomination fight of any kind. But there are some.
In 2019, both parties held primaries for a Senate seat in Virginia Beach. If this had been an open primary, the top two finishers would have been Republicans:
Jennifer Kiggans (R) 4,045
Carolyn Weems (R) 3,789
Cheryl Turpin (D) 3,268
Susan Hippen (D) 1,531
Kim Howard (D) 761
If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that this was an interesting year: All five primary candidates were women. But this is also an interesting test case for the open primary debate. The general election that year was Kiggans versus Turpin and it was exceedingly close – Kiggans won 29,609 to 29,098. Had there been an open primary, though, Turpin wouldn’t have even been on the general election ballot.
You can argue that at least two ways: Those two Republicans finalists would have had to appeal to a general election electorate in a way that would have been very different than they would have in conventional Republican-versus-Democrat contest – the winner likely would have been whoever did the best job of appealing to those Democrats. On the other hand, you can make the case that Democrats would have been deprived of their preferred candidate for the general election. How many would have bothered to vote in the general election at all?
The more interesting case would come in situations we have to imagine. In 2021, in a district that ran from Franklin County to Patrick County, longtime Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, was challenged for the Republican nomination by Wren Williams of Patrick County. Williams won the primary with just under 63% of the vote, then went on to win the general election with just under 77% of the vote. That’s obviously a very Republican district. However, what if there had been an open primary – between Poindexter, Williams and Democrat Bridgette Craighead? For the sake of argument, let’s assume that since it’s such a Republican district, Craighead would have finished out of the money. Also for the sake of argument, let’s assume that no one achieved a majority, setting up a general election campaign between Poindexter and Williams. Williams won easily over Poindexter in a primary with 6,711 voters. But would he have won over Poindexter in a general election where there were 31,225 voters? We have no way of knowing. Those are the kinds of situations, though, that an open primary would likely produce.
Feel free to argue amongst yourselves whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Before you do, though, let’s consider one more example.
In 2020, Bob Good challenged Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County, for the Republican congressional nomination in the 5th District – and won in a convention that was held at Good’s church in Campbell County. He then went on to win the general election in a Republican-leaning district – so a relatively small number of party insiders threw out the district’s congressman before voters at large could even weigh in.
In an open primary, though, Good would have had to compete not just against Riggleman but also against four Democrats (that’s how many candidates were in the 5th District Democratic primary that year). Maybe the top two would have been Good and Riggleman. Or maybe Riggleman and Democrat Cameron Webb. Or maybe Good and Webb. One way or another, though, general election voters would have had a say in whether Riggleman should stay or go.
Now feel free to have your debate.