Digital Social Networks Are the Newest Front in the Fight for Open Political Primaries

This post was first published by The Huffington Post on April 21, 2016.

The 2016 presidential primary season is a cycle unlike any other. Record numbers of voters are testing the limits of a system designed to accommodate far lower citizen engagement. Several states now face backlashes from hundreds of thousands of voters who faced labyrinthine lines and unprepared election officials.

Now, after a harried and hectic April 19 presidential primary, New York joins a handful of other states facing the collective outrage of Democratic and Republican voters.

Voters mobilized even before polls closed. A petition calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reform the state’s closed primary system gained more than 1,600 signatures in the hours after polls closed. Another petition goes even further, with more than 5,000 people calling on New York to “re-vote” under a “modified-closed” system that would allow independents to cast ballots in individual party primaries.

New Yorkers aren’t alone in demanding changes to the closed primary system — where only individuals registered as Democrats or Republicans can vote in their party’s primary. Voters have called for an end to the closed primary in ArizonaFlorida and Pennsylvania, arguing the current rules require registration up to a year before the primaries and disenfranchise left- and right-leaning voters who do not select a party identification.

New York’s troubles look surprisingly similar to those in Arizona. After long lines and confusion during March 22 voting in Maricopa County, one voter filed a lawsuit calling for the results to be invalidated. Nearly 10,000 people signed a petition calling for the impeachment of Maricopa County election officials, and 8,500 more joined a petition calling for a primary “do-over.”

With New York and Arizona in mind, potential primary voters are looking ahead to one of the biggest prizes of the season: California. A new petition calls on the California Secretary of State to change California’s June 7 primary structure to an open system. “We cannot and will not be known as a state that disenfranchises voters,” petition starter Sonya Meza says.

As activists and primary-watchers shift their action from demanding accountability for past errors to changing the presidential nominating system for the future, what results can we expect? It’s likely too late to change the party registration rules for the 2016 cycle, but these petitions – and the real-world calls for reform they echo – may be changing how political players view online activism.

Once labeled “slacktivists” because of the low engagement levels required to voice discontent online, unhappy voters are taking real steps to merge the huge audiences available on social media with activism on the ground and in the courts. The amplifying power of social networks allows these voices to reach large audiences at low or no cost, significantly reducing the resources needed to mount and sustain campaigns like those in Arizona and New York.

The potential for social media to support political reform campaigns has been a prominent topic in communications since at least the 2004 anthology Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements. But the broad reach of social media and widespread use by both professional activists and casual users only reached a critical mass in recent years, with the rise of petition platforms and direct-action social tools.

The immediacy of outrage in New York and Arizona is possible because of that critical mass.

At the same time, elected officials are learning the public relations benefits of engaging directly with online activists. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed “Chloe’s Law” to protect drivers from accidental deaths in submerged vehicles after over 57,000 people signed a petition coupled with traditional offline activism. Political leaders in New York and Arizona may find media pressure created by petitions too serious to ignore.

Max Burns is a U.S. Communication Manager. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.

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Max Burns
April 27, 2016 5:35 am