Many people from different parts of the spectrum will not like this post. But as a former Republican Co-Chair of the Illinois Election Laws Study Commission (1977-1983), I need to defend the sytem of primary elections that developed in Illinois from 1920 to 1990.
Primary elections across the nation have two different sets of enemies. First are those on the Left who want to make primary nominations open to all voters so they can make it much more difficult for conservatives to win nominations. Second are those who vainly regard themselves as keepers of the party flame who want to block new people they regard as outsiders from having influence in nominating candidates not approved by the establishment party leaders.
Let me start by dismissing meaningless terms used by uninformed journalists and superficial political scientists who pretend to know what they are talking about but who do not know the history of primary elections.
First, there is no such thing as an "open" or a "closed" primary in Illinois and many other states. In 1920, after the infamous smoke-filled room deal at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago that nominated Warren Harding, GOP reform governors such as Hiram Johnson of California and Frank Lowden of Illinois started to work for what is correctly called "a declaratory primary." This means in the case of Illinois that if a voter wanted to vote to nominate a party candidate, the voter had to "declare" their party affiliation on the honor system.
The idea was that only voters who intended to be authentic affiliates of a party in the fall had the right to have a say in the nomination process. This was sometimes hard to enforce after the Pontikes v. Kusper case in 1972, but the system mostly worked very well for 50 years and the nominees did reflect the will of GOP and Democratic Party grass roots voters.
In the GOP, the regulars tended to be more conservative than the establishment-backed candidates. Sen. Barry Goldwater handily defeated Sen. Margaret Chase Smith in the Illinois primary of 1964. Gerald Ford won the nomination but he had stiff competition from conservative Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Illinois GOP primary. Establishment favorite Texas Gov. John Connally did not get very far in his challenge to Reagan in 1980 in Illinois and John Anderson, George H. W. Bush, and Phil Crane also melted in front of the Reagan dominance.
But now the self-appointed party establishment leaders are singing a different song because they fear challenges to their own dominance from the new energy of Tea Party irregulars. Sometimes this also happens in the Democratic primary when machine leaders fear a challenge from super left-wing candidates and their idealistic if wrong volunteers.
But in my opinion as both a student of election law and as a movement conservative, i think attacks on the 1922 system of declaratory primaries are very misguided. The GOP needs new blood desperately and clumsy efforts to block Tea Party volunteers by defenders of the establishment status quo only serve to suffocate new innovation and recruitment of new volunteers. The GOP cannot afford to turn away the most energetic new conservatives from participation in the party.
The strange alliance between the establishment GOP and the far Left of the Democratic Party in attacking a declaratory system of primary nominations might only be temporary and I hope that is the case.