Episode 108 John Opdyke - Founder of OpenPrimaries.org/Political Activist
Comedian Rosie Tran (@FunnyRosie) interviews political activist and founder of Openprimaries.org, John Opdyke (@OpenPrimaryUSA). John talks about how the current political system needs reform to avoid corruption in elections and how the current primary system favors the political parties and not the people. His mission is to spread the message of an open primary system that empowers all voices in the American narrative and educate the people about the political process. Thought provoking and smart guest with a lot of interesting information about reforming our current system! John is a true Out of the Box thinker!
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Rosie Tran: I'm here today with a very special guest. He is the founder of Open Primaries, and his name is John Opdyke. John, how are you?
John Opdyke: I am great. Thanks for asking. How are you?
Rosie Tran: Great. I'm so excited to have you and for you to share your message about open primaries. Obviously, with this current election cycle there's been a lot of questioning about our voting system and our democracy, and you're presenting an alternative.
John Opdyke: Yes. Yes. I think it's very positive that there is a growing national conversation, not just about who gets elected, but how they get elected, and how our democracy works, and who gets to participate in it and who doesn't, and who makes the rules. Something that I've always believed in is that the people who make the rules rule, and I think that right now the American people are beginning to ask some important questions about the rules of the game. I think that's very positive, and it's not ... Look, the changes we need to make to our democracy are not going to happen overnight. They're going to involve struggle, and fight, and going up against some very powerful forces and institutions, but I feel very optimistic and very excited about the interest among the American people to really look at some of these tough questions.
Rosie Tran: Well, let's talk about the traditional primary system and how you're recommending and advocating for a different type of system. Now, during this election, I always vote, but I was so confused, and I'm always confused. There's the primary system, and some of them if you're registered you can vote, if you're not you can't, but then you can vote in the general election. A lot of people don't really even understand our current democracy.
John Opdyke: Yeah, and not only that, it's different in every state.
Rosie Tran: Yes. That's what was so confusing. I'm like, "What's a caucus? What's this?" I was Googling. Thank god for Wikipedia and Google. I was like, "Wait, what's the difference between this and that?" Obviously we all learned about it in like seventh grade government class, but it's hard to keep up when you're living a busy life.
John Opdyke: It's impossible to keep up. It's really a patchwork system, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I'm really not, so don't take what I'm going to say next as some kind of blanket conspiracy, but if you look at the rules of the primaries, they're designed to give the parties maximal influence and keep the voters maximally confused.
Rosie Tran: Well, they did a good job because I was totally confused, and I think a lot of my friends, and colleagues, and coworkers were also extremely confused.
John Opdyke: Yeah. I mean, the primaries are ... they're run by the government. They're held at the same schools, and town halls, and libraries as the general election, but there's a whole different set of rules that govern them, and the parties get to decide who can vote in them, who can't vote in them. They not only change state to state, they change election to election.
Rosie Tran: I did not know that.
John Opdyke: The primaries are funded by the taxpayers. They're administered by the government, by the election agencies, and yet the political parties get to decide who gets to vote in them and who doesn't, with some notable exceptions. In California, this might come as a surprise to you, but in 2010 a coalition of citizens came together and completely overhauled the primary system for every election except president. President is like a whole different ball of wax, but now in California you no longer have a Democratic primary, or a Republican primary. You have a public primary. All the candidates appear on the ballot. All the voters get to vote for whoever they want, and the top two vote getters go on to the November election.
Rosie Tran: I was going to say that.
John Opdyke: That's the kind of system that we're pushing for all over the country.
Rosie Tran: I do remember that happening, the overhaul happening. Was it last year? Because I remember there was a runoff between two Democrats ...
John Opdyke: Right.
Rosie Tran: ... and that had never happened before. It's usually, in other states, Republican versus Democrat, is that correct?
John Opdyke: Exactly. Exactly. It was passed in 2010. It was implemented in 2012, and in 2014 and 2016 you started seeing some of the positive benefits of that. One of the benefits is that you have much more competitive elections. You have November elections between two candidates that emerged out of the primary with the most support. In most states what you have is you have primaries where one candidate emerges out of each party, but because of gerrymandering and other factors most districts in the country one party is completely dominant, and so in certain areas of the state whoever wins the Republican primary is the automatic winner in November, and in certain parts of the state whoever wins the Democratic primary is the automatic winner. Most voters don't get to vote in those primaries, so it's-
Rosie Tran: Let's talk a little bit about what you just said, because it's very, very important, and it was hugely visible in this election cycle. For example, in the Republican primary there was about 15 people running in the original primary. It seemed like Mr. Trump, our current president, was able to kind of take advantage of the fact that there was a lot of, I guess, lack of clarity. I remember a lot of Republican, traditional Republicans, being interviewed saying, "I don't know who supports this guy, because I don't know anyone that supports this guy. We all support Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz," or whoever. Could this open primary system have changed, definitely changed that portion of the election?
John Opdyke: Well, I think that the better lens into the impact of open versus closed primaries was not on the Republican side. It was on the Democratic side. Let me just talk to you about that for a minute. The contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was an insider/outsider contest. In the states that allow Independents to vote in the presidential primaries, Bernie did much better and won most of those states. In the states where Independents are not allowed to vote, like New York, like Florida, Hillary Clinton won. You had a direct correlation between closed primaries favoring the establishment candidate, open primaries favoring the insurgent candidate, and that was kind of very easy to see.
The Republican side, there were so many other dynamics that it's not so easy to put into that category. You had Donald Trump demolishing the establishment in both closed primary states and open primary states, and that had to do with the number of candidates that he was running against, some of the politics going on in the GOP and in the conservative movement. There was a slight, when it got down to Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, after many of the candidates had dropped out, you did see Ted Cruz doing better in closed primary states and Trump doing better in open primary states, but I think the Bernie/Hillary contest is a much more clear example of how closing the system to Independents directly hurts the insurgent candidate.
Rosie Tran: You're saying because there was only two major candidates, obviously Martin O'Malley ran, but he wasn't a major contender ...
John Opdyke: Right.
Rosie Tran: ... it's more obvious how open primaries can affect, because there was so many candidates on the Republican side?
John Opdyke: Yes, and it also turns out that when it comes to primaries, there are enough states that allow Independents to vote in the presidential primaries that it creates a pathway for insurgent candidates. That's how Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. He organized a strategy of focusing on those states that allowed Independents to vote in the Democratic primary. He outflanked Hillary, and did that. Bernie didn't quite put together the smart enough strategy and didn't have what Barack Obama had.
Rosie Tran: Well, it sounds like just by you saying that they're implementing a strategy, that it's not as simple as one vote equals one vote. It sounds like because the system in each state is so different that it's excluding a lot of people.
John Opdyke: Yeah. The largest and fastest growing group of voters in this country are Independents, and that is a very interesting trend. It's a misunderstood trend. The traditional political scientists, they tend to dismiss Independents, and the way they do this is they say, "Well, it might seem like there's a lot of Independents, but most of them are either Republican-lite or Democratic-lite, so even though 45% of people say they're Independent, there's really only about 5% of the country that's Independent." They essentially eliminate all these people by a sleight of hand. Actually, the trend towards Independents is very significant politically and culturally.
Essentially you have people, and it crosses ideological lines, geographic lines. It's nationwide. People are saying, "I don't want to be in a political party. I want to vote for the people I like. I want to support the issues I like. Political parties are a little bit outdated. My grandfather was in a political party, but that's not for me." What you end up with is a set of laws and rules about who can and who can't vote in primaries that are determined by the parties, these gatekeepers, these institutions that people really, they don't understand them. They don't like them. That's causing a lot of confusion, and a lot of problems, and a lot of low voter turnout.
Rosie Tran: I think what you said is very significant, because I remember an interview, it was a man on the street, where they were going around interviewing different potential voters. I remember a gentleman from the Midwest, and he said, "Well, I'm a huge Bernie fan. I want to vote for Bernie, but I think Hillary's going to win the primary, and if I don't go for Bernie I'm going to go for Trump." I just thought, "Wow. Those are two people with two ... two candidates with two completely different ideologies," but like you said, people want to vote for what they want to vote for. They don't necessarily fall into a specific party line. Maybe they have certain beliefs or certain issues that they care about that are more important than others. There was many women for example who crossed stereotypical voting to vote for Mr. Trump because they didn't believe in Hillary for whatever reason. There was a lot of kind of out-of-the-box voting in this election cycle as well as other election cycles in general, and most of the people that I know consider themselves Independent or reluctantly consider themselves part of a party.
John Opdyke: Exactly. I mean, you're absolutely right about that. I think that it's such a strength right now of the American people that we're out of the box, that we're voting in unusual ways, that we're challenging conventions, that we're saying, "Hey, don't pen me in. Don't put me in a little silo." That, unfortunately, the capacity to express that politically, is oftentimes limited. I mean, in the US Congress, only 12% of the races in 2016 were competitive, so below president you end up with these elections that are foregone conclusions and people don't have the opportunity as often as they should to give expression to the fact that they want to do some new things in politics.
To your point, I think we're seeing more and more of that, and I think this presidential election, the Bernie/Trump phenomenon was a great example of that. There's other examples too. In California, there was an analysis done that showed that something like one million Trump voters, and don't quote me on these figures exactly. I don't have it in front of me, but something like one million Californians who voted for Trump also voted for a woman of color for US Senate, a Democrat woman of color for the US Senate. In Arizona, for example, you had Donald Trump win by 10 or 20 points. The same voters threw Joe Arpaio out of office by 20 points.
Rosie Tran: Yes. I saw that. For those of you listeners who don't know who he is, he was considered a racist, had very anti-Hispanic American ... He was having racial profiling in his district of Hispanic Americans. Is that correct?
John Opdyke: Yes. He's kind of the poster child for the anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican movement, and was known as just-
Rosie Tran: Correct. For those of you who don't know who he is.
John Opdyke: Yeah. Yeah. One of the things, I'm a Progressive. I'm on the left of the spectrum, and I vehemently disagree with Progressive pundits and other leaders who insist that Trump voters are racists and make the sweeping categorizations about the American people that are incredibly wrong and incredibly hurtful. I think people voted for Donald Trump for all kinds of reasons. To simply limit them to, oh, this means our country is now racist, well it's not helpful to the process and moving the country forward. That's just me personally.
Rosie Tran: Now, let me ask you. You are the founder of Open Primaries. Was this an idea that came to you during this election, or how long have you been advocating for this open primary system?
John Opdyke: Sure. I'll give you the 60 second version. I became a political activist in college. I became active in a group called the Rainbow Lobby, which was-
Rosie Tran: That sounds like a very fun lobby.
John Opdyke: Yeah. It was a great organization, and we worked on election reform issues, particularly pertaining to third-party candidates, so opening the presidential debates, opening the ballot, opening the opportunities for third-party candidates to have a level playing field. This was the late '80s and '90s when there was a lot of motion on that front. In fact, there was a major new third party that was created in 1996, the Reform Party, that I was part of the founding of that, and the building of that. It ultimately crashed and burned in 2000 from a lot of political pressure from the Democrats and Republicans. Ross Perot was the figurehead of that effort.
After 2000, I was part of a group called independentvoting.org, which began to focus less on the rights of third parties and more on the rights of Independent voters. Not just the rights of Independent voters, but this new political sensibility. How do you give expression politically not to a third party but through a movement of people saying, "We're tired of party control. We're tired of these parties gatekeeping the whole political system"? One of the issues that the Independent movement began to work on at the local level, at the state level, was open primaries. Spent a decade involved in various campaigns and efforts, and then I partnered with a philanthropist to set up open primaries in 2014 so we could have a national organization that was really focused on that issue specifically. Then in 2016 the issue went from a pretty marginal issue to a mainstream issue because of how the presidential primaries were so controversial and so many people were locked out of voting in them.
Rosie Tran: Yeah. I know there was a big controversy in a lot of states where Bernie voters or supporters were turned away or were not allowed to vote, or for whatever reason, as you said, were registered as Independents, or had formally been registered as Democrats and then no longer.
John Opdyke: Right.
Rosie Tran: There's many other countries who have multiple party systems with 12, 13 parties. This American system of left versus right, red versus blue, Liberal versus Conservative, it seems to be obviously failing very badly, because the divisiveness that is occurring not only through the internet but in person. I think I read a statistic, again don't quote me on this, that 20% ... there's been a 20% increase in family fighting as far as political fighting, family members not talking to each other, disowning each other, marriages breaking up.
It just seems to be such a divisive system that's not bringing people together even though obviously there's the political talk of, "We need to work together. We need to have bipartisan support. We need to bring each other together," but because it's this one way or the other left or right, even though the average person if you were to interview them, they would not feel one way or the other. They would have some viewpoints on the left, some on the right, and vice versa. A perfect example is Christian conservative women who consider themselves feminists, or whatever you would consider yourself. There's many people that have beliefs on both sides of the system. To have this two-party system it seems like it's increasing the divisiveness.
John Opdyke: Absolutely. It's designed to create polarization and divisiveness. That's not a problem of the system. That is the design of the system. It's the parties. They operate in such a way as to divvy people up, put them on opposite sides of the football stadium, and then provoke them to attack and fight each other. Just to get philosophical for a second, I think that one of the ways we're going to combat that is by raising important questions about what is democracy? What does it mean? What is the value of a democratic system? I argue, and increasing numbers of people are raising this question, is that it's not just about election day. If democracy is only about the outcomes, who wins, who loses, we're going to be in a perpetual permanent campaign where the day after the election whoever loses, they just continue with their things. We're seeing that right now.
The value, in my opinion and many other people's opinion, the value of democracy is citizens coming together to create power, to create new conversations, to create new possibilities, not just to rubber stamp the possibilities, and the issues, and the outcomes that have been created by political elites and political insiders. It's citizens coming together to create new possibilities, new conversations. The open primaries issue and movement were very much situated in that philosophical discussion. How can we recreate our democracy to allow for, not guarantee, but allow for citizens to come together in ways that allow us to exercise some political power and create some new things together? I think that's how we're going to move the country out of this perpetual ... Just it's mind-numbing, just the endless attacking.
Rosie Tran: It is. It's very mind-numbing. It's very back and forth. It's like the Republicans are in power, they push their agenda. A Democrat gets in power, everything gets reversed and pushed, and it's very left and right, and left and right. It's like there's no forward. There's no forward because the pendulum keeps going left and right.
John Opdyke: Exactly. It has much more to do with fundraising, and maintaining power centers than it has to do with the country, the people. The room for actual honesty in politics right now ... there's almost no oxygen for that. It's all just, hey, if that person's for it, I'm opposing it. If that party's against it, I'm for it. There's no room for saying, "Well, actually what would ... Are there some new ways to look at this issue? Could we talk about education in some new ways? Could we talk about poverty in some new ways that don't fall trap to these just endless stupid debates that go nowhere?"
Rosie Tran: Well, let's talk about open primaries. What are you advocating? You talked about the California system being very close to what you're advocating. One, what is the actual plan of open primaries, and two, how can we start implementing that on a state by state level so that the entire system, there's a change, a true change?
John Opdyke: Well, it's tough. There's no one size fits all. We're working on a lot of different levels in court, in state legislatures, putting together ballot committees, and looking at particularly states that allow voters to put issues directly on the ballot. That's where we've had the most success. I'll tell you, the opposition comes from both parties. It's amazing.
Rosie Tran: To the open primary system that you're advocating?
John Opdyke: Yes. Yes. When we've gotten measures on the ballot in Oregon, and Arizona, and New York that were just crushed. We lost like 70 to 30 in both those states. One of the dynamics, and we have a lot of work to do to overcome this, is that both parties come out and oppose it. They fight like cats and dogs, and then when it comes to this they're like, "Well, we're going to join forces to make sure that nothing changes." It's a tough, tough issue. A lot of what we need to do is educate people on this, push every opportunity to challenge issues. For example, we're hoping to get into court soon on the use of taxpayer funds to fund primaries that exclude people. We're looking to partner with legislatures that recognize that the low voter turnout and the party control is bad for business in the state legislature, but it's a long road. There is no silver bullet that's going to turn this very quickly.
Rosie Tran: What you're saying also I hear is that it's not in the parties and the party leaders' best interest to support what you're advocating, because they have the low voter turnout and the manipulation that is able to again, no conspiracy theories here, but be able to go on with this just two-party system and the control that they have with the two-party system. Why would they want to give up control to have more people vote and have more people have a say? Am I off on guessing that?
John Opdyke: Absolutely.
Rosie Tran: Okay.
John Opdyke: That's not a conspiracy. I have a great story about that, so Oakland. Oakland is one of the most liberal areas of the United States. They have been represented by a liberal Democrat since the Depression. The congressman in Oakland from the early '60s all the way through 2012 was a guy named Pete Stark. Under the old closed primary system, all Pete Stark had to do to get reelected was have a couple meetings with some of the Democratic Party interest groups, a couple unions. He would win the primary. Sometimes no one would even run against him, or a token opponent. He'd win the primary with 80, 90% of the vote, and then he'd face a Republican in November that was usually a college kid just getting some experience. He didn't even campaign. This was a guy who served 46 years in Congress and rarely ever had to campaign.
In 2012, under the new system, that all changed. What happened was Pete Stark ran in the primary but it was an open non-partisan primary, so everybody could vote in that primary, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. He came in first place. He's the incumbent, but another Democrat, a young man named Eric Swalwell, came in second place, so the November election is now between Pete Stark and another Democrat. This young guy, Eric Swalwell, he went out and knocked on 100,000 doors. He spoke to Democrats. He's a liberal Democrat. He spoke to Independents and he spoke to Republicans, and he ended up winning the November election by 10 points. He beat Pete Stark 55, 45. Oakland is still represented by a liberal Democrat.
Eric Swalwell is as progressive as the day is long, but he has said this, and he's very eloquent about this, is that he's a Progressive who is accountable to the voters in Oakland. He has to go campaign every two years. He has to talk to people that disagree with him. He has to speak to the Republicans and the Independents who he represents. If he doesn't, someone will come along and beat him the way that he beat Pete Stark. That's not an issue of ideology. That's an issue of accountability and giving the voters more of a direct say in the legislative process and Congress, and also Eric Swalwell, liberal Democrat, when he goes to Washington, he has no problem taking a meeting with a conservative Republican, or sitting down with people that he disagrees with, because that's the kind of election that he did. Many members of Congress, they won't even be seen in a photo with someone from the other party.
Rosie Tran: Because he's had to talk to them because the open primary system. It wasn't just the Democratic side that was voting for him.
John Opdyke: Right.
Rosie Tran: He had to go and make friends, and colleagues, and talk to people of different viewpoints and actually hear another point of view and debate in a friendly manner with those constituents that he's representing, is what you're saying.
John Opdyke: Yeah. I mean, Oakland, it's funny. Oakland is very, very liberal, very progressive, but 50% of the voters who live in Oakland are Republicans or Independents. Now, many of them are liberal Republicans and liberal Independents, but nonetheless, these are people that in the traditional system were completely ignored. No one had to talk to them, phone them, knock on their door, send them a flier, annoy them with a telemarketing call. They could just ignore them, and so you ended up with someone like Pete Stark, who served for 46 years, who listened to a small, tiny segment of the electorate in Oakland, and that's bad-
Rosie Tran: He only had to cater to who was going to get him elected instead of all of the people ...
John Opdyke: Exactly.
Rosie Tran: ... which, when you're representing a district, you're representing everyone, not just a small percentage of people.
John Opdyke: Exactly, and not just the people that agree with you. You're representing everybody. Eric Swalwell will tell you. He'll tell you, "If I don't do my job, if I don't speak up for my constituents, if I don't do a good job, I'm gone. I will lose the next election." Pete Stark, he could go to the Dominican Republic and lay on the beach on election day. It didn't matter. He was completely insulated from his voters.
Rosie Tran: Now, do you think that this two-party system has created the monster that we saw this election where so many people felt left behind and unheard, because that was the theme of this election, was no matter what quote/unquote "side" you're on, people felt unheard. There was a big theme with that.
John Opdyke: Absolutely. I think that the American people have been pushing up against the political establishment for the last 25 years. It's looked different ways. There was a national term limits movement. There was an effort to create a third party, the Reform Party, which was a wonderful failure. I say that as someone very much a part of it. There have been efforts to ... We elected the first African American president, and Barack Obama, his campaign was all about moving into a post-party era.
Rosie Tran: There was many Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Obama, many Republicans.
John Opdyke: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly, and many Independents. People have been grasping at hey, maybe we have to do it by getting term limits. Hey, maybe we need a third party. Hey, maybe we need a visionary African American president. Now, and I think this is one of the positive things about Trump, and I'm not a fan of his policies or his personality, but I think one of the dynamics about the Trump victory that tends to get overlooked is Trump in relation to Obama in the following sense. We elected arguably the most articulate politician of a generation, someone who exemplified a post-partisan, let's bring people together, let's put the past behind us, a visionary orator.
We put him in Washington, and politics got worse, not better. The partisanship got worse, not better, and I think an aspect of the Trump, the appeal to many people about Trump was oh, okay. We sent our best and our brightest to Washington, and they weren't able to do it. Now let's send our drunk uncle to Washington who's going to go there and he's going to just throw up on the carpet and he's going to piss everybody off, and he's going to be a disaster, because maybe that's what we need to shake things up in Washington, because sending someone who's a genius, who wins the Nobel Prize, who's clearly so qualified, that didn't work. Actually, it got worse, so what do we have to lose by trying this crazy guy?
Rosie Tran: I think that we are following really the true vision of our founding fathers, because democracy, many people don't really realize, is still an experiment. It's been an experiment. It's what, 300 years old, 250 years old?
John Opdyke: Yeah.
Rosie Tran: It's a pretty new thing. We had monarchies and that didn't work obviously, but that was the system of power for thousands and thousands of years, and feudalism and other different forms of government, so this is truly an experiment in evolution and process.
John Opdyke: Yes, and I think that's so well put. If you look at American history, there's lots of different ways to look at American history. There's the country grappling with its original sin, which is slavery, the just massive contradiction of forming the first democracy and yet encoding slavery into the Constitution. I mean, just like could we get over that? Dealing with broadening the franchise. You talk about that experiment, in 1783 only white men with property could vote. Now we've expanded it to women, and African Americans, and 18-year-olds, and so forth. There's been all kinds of struggles to deepen the meaning of democracy, and I think one of the dangers that we're in right now is that many people, most people, most institutions in the political class, they would never say this overtly, but their message is, "Look, the experiment is over. Now it's all about winning. Now it's about the football game, getting behind your team and making sure your team wins. No more time for experimenting. No more time for trying new things. No more time for bringing together new things. Nope. It's all about winning."
Rosie Tran: Yeah. I think a lot of people feel that vibe.
John Opdyke: It's very, very coercive, and it is very ... Again, I experience this, we all do, day to day, is that Donald Trump does something that you don't like. You disagree with it. You don't agree with that pick, or that policy. The machine basically says, "Well, the only thing to do about that is to make sure the Democrats win in 2018." Well, I don't think that's the only thing to do when a politician, a president does something you disagree with. I think we need to have 20 different things to do, 20 different types of conversations, 20 different ... Right now it all gets funneled into ...
Rosie Tran: One narrative.
John Opdyke: ... Trump did this. Support the Democrats. The Republicans do the exact same thing. The Republicans do the exact same thing. I'm not trying to pretend that the conservative establishment is any less guilty. They are.
Rosie Tran: Well, let's talk about the establishment, because there's a left/right narrative, and there's this famous political cartoon that I just love where it says, "Republican, Democrat," and they're both very different looking in the photo, and then you kind of see them, secretly you can't tell, but then you see them secretly they're holding hands underneath the table. It seems more instead of left/right it seems more establishment/Independent is more of what reality is because like I said, so many people that I know, maybe they're registered as a Democrat or Republican but their viewpoints don't fit into those two narratives, don't fit into those two boxes, and not only that, but they have different political views that might not even be in parts of those boxes. Yet, this establishment system, whether it's right or left, seems to be going against the individual voter and their individual desires. Like you said, it's really hard to get direct voter access. It's kind of being funneled through the parties. Does that make sense?
John Opdyke: Totally, and you're absolutely right. I actually think the ... We're all taught that the way to understand is left/right. That's the almost kind of natural order. There are people on the left and there are people on the right, and the divisions in American politics are best understood as a battle between people on the left and on the right, and I think that's a complete myth. I think Americans have a million opinions. I mean, you get 10 Americans in a room and you'll get 20 opinions about every issue.
Rosie Tran: A million and one opinions.
John Opdyke: You can categorize those opinions as liberal opinions or conservative opinions. Of course you can do that, but I think the more accurate description is exactly what you're saying. The divisions in this country are between the insiders, the political elites, the people that run this country, and the American people in all our messy diversity, in all our ways that we're messy, and dumb, and undereducated, and sloppy, and confused. We're all those things, but we're also a people that have built a democracy over 250 years, and we have a lot of appreciation for that. The American people, I've seen this, they can have strident disagreements with one another and all kinds of opinions, and you bring them in a room together that's not completely controlled by party apparatuses, and those people can fall in love on the drop of a hat. They can say, "Okay, let's do this together. Let's create something together."
Rosie Tran: Or John, as has been proven many, many times in the wake of a disaster ... You're in New York. You know disaster. I'm from New Orleans. Disasters happen and people throw party lines out the window just to get an objective met, and I've seen that many times now unfortunately because I've seen many disasters, but we can as a people. It's not left/right. We can as a people put aside our quote/unquote "political opinions" to get a common goal met, and that's been proven just in this decade three or four times off the top of my head I can think of in moments of disaster and other extreme issues that need to be addressed as people.
John Opdyke: You know what's fascinating about, because I've lived through a blackout in New York, through 9/11, and you're absolutely right. I think that what the experience I have is that how people react during a disaster is actually the natural state of things, but what happens is when there's a disaster is that the political class stops harassing us. They just let us be. They let the American people be, and when they let us be, we actually are very creative, and we come together, and we help our neighbors, and we help our families, and we recognize that differences of opinion don't mean we have divisions.
That's the natural order. Americans know that. They know our differences are not divisions. Yet, a week after, two weeks after, as soon as the disaster, they patch it up. They do this. They get the lights back on. The political establishment from both sides, they resume harassing the American people and saying, "Okay. Got to get back to the game. You got to get back to demonizing your opponent, and demonizing your neighbor who disagrees with you, and demonizing that," you know? They won't let us be. They keep people so revved up.
Rosie Tran: It is, and I think you're right. It is the natural order of things, and you see your neighbor trapped up in a house or with shrapnel flying at their face and you don't go, "Hey, are you a Republican or Democrat?" You just go, "Hey, let's get out of the way, or come get on my boat," or whatever. I wanted to ask you what is your open primaries I guess perspective on, because there's been a lot of talk this election about kind of the closed primary system and voter issues, and things like that, but there's also been a lot of talk about the electoral college, and I want to know how that is integrated in what you guys are advocating, or if it isn't at all?
John Opdyke: Well, as an organization we really focus on the primary issue. There's so much work to do in that arena at the state, the local, the federal level that that's where we live. We're part of a much broader disruptive reform movement that's tackling gerrymandering, that's tackling the presidential debates actually-
Rosie Tran: Okay. Let's talk about gerrymandering really quick before you move on.
John Opdyke: Sure.
Rosie Tran: I'm sorry to cut you off. For those of the listeners who don't know, that's when voter district lines are drawn, correct, to specifically benefit a certain party or group, am I wrong?
John Opdyke: Yes. They're drawn to minimize competition and maximize predictability. One of the dirty little secrets about American politics is that more often than not, the Democrats and Republicans get together and they draw the lines together to make sure the Republicans have some safe districts, the Democrats have some safe districts, and then they'll only fight it out over a couple districts.
Rosie Tran: Got it. I just wanted the listeners to know, because this is not a political podcast, so just in case they're like, "What is that?"
John Opdyke: Yeah.
Rosie Tran: Okay.
John Opdyke: I mean, the easiest way to understand it is that gerrymandering allows the politicians to choose the voters instead of the voters choosing the politicians.
Rosie Tran: Got it. That's a very clear description. Now, is gerrymandering, I know I've done some research on it, is it the district lines are decided on by the politicians or is voted on by the people of those district lines after they're drawn?
John Opdyke: No. They're drawn by, in most states, they're drawn by the state assembly and then ratified by the state assembly and the governor, and the people have no say at all. In California, it's different. In California, we have a Citizens Redistricting Commission. The lines in California are not drawn by politicians. They're drawn by citizens.
Rosie Tran: Okay.
John Opdyke: It's miraculous, and it's the only state in the country where there's that, where the politicians don't get to draw their own district lines.
Rosie Tran: Okay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off about the electoral college question.
John Opdyke: Yeah, so there's people working on that issue. There's people working on opening the presidential debates to third parties, and that group level the playing field. They just won a very important court case this week, which hopefully will have some positive results. I think the old paradigm of the way to fix politics is you have to focus on just the money. The money is the only problem. The system is fine, but you have to deal with the money. That's kind of going out the window, and I think that's very, very positive. People are now starting to look at this and say, "Well, what if how they draw the lines, and who gets to vote, and the rules, and how the Federal Election Commission is set up, and the electoral college," and people are really starting to look at this stuff.
Personally, I think there's some huge problems with the electoral college, but it's funny. It also has some unintended benefits. The fact that it so distorts things, you end up with these presidential campaigns that take place in more than just a handful of states. I don't support the electoral college. I think it's outdated. I think it's kind of silly, but I also don't think if you just went to the popular vote without changing some of these other structural issues, I don't think it would fundamentally change politics to the extent it needs to be changed. Does that make sense?
Rosie Tran: Yes, it does. I think the money issue that you brought up is huge because we've been hearing for many, many years, "Follow the money. Money and politics, corruption," and this election above many others showed and totally disproved that because the front-runner as far as funds was concerned was Jeb Bush.
John Opdyke: Yeah. I mean, all the big money people got their heads handed to them. I mean, Bernie Sanders raised tens of millions of dollars from small donations.
Rosie Tran: In $5 donations.
John Opdyke: Yeah. The American people are ready and willing to fund campaigns that they think will make a difference.
Rosie Tran: That they believe in, yeah.
John Opdyke: Yeah. Look, I live in New York. We have the model campaign finance program. We have no corporate donations, no large donations. Every small donation gets matched five to one, so we have a public financing system, and it hasn't made New York City politics one degree better. It's made it more bureaucratic. It's actually made it harder to run for office if you're not a professional politician. Voter turnout in New York City is an absolute disgrace. It's the lowest in the country.
Rosie Tran: Wow
John Opdyke: I mean, it's interesting. I was talking with someone about this. In the 1940s, turnout was in the high 80s for mayor. It's now in the low 20s.
Rosie Tran: Yeah. Ours is in the 20s too. The last local election I think they said 17% of Los Angelenians voted.
John Opdyke: Yeah. The typical thing is oh, Americans don't care. We've lost civic pride. Well, actually people are smart. When they know the election is pre-decided and the outcome is predetermined, they don't tend to take a half day off work and go vote in something that everything has already been decided.
Rosie Tran: That happened in many states I know that are quote/unquote "red states" or "blue states." I have many liberal friends in Louisiana where I'm from, New Orleans, and they said, "Well, we knew it was going to go red, so we didn't vote." Whereas if there was an open primary system, I don't think they would feel that their vote was so worthless.
John Opdyke: Yes. I'll be the first one to say that if we moved to an open primary in every state it would not be a silver bullet. It would not result in miraculous wonderful politics. It's part of a larger puzzle. It's part of a larger conversation about reconstructing our democracy. The reason I like open primaries and have put a lot of energy into it, is that it's very specific to where we are right now as a country, which is that the voters, we don't have enough power. We don't have enough options. We don't have enough alternatives to do some new things. All you do when you open the system is you put the voters in a slightly better position to do some new things. Now, we might not take advantage of that. The American people, that's part of ... I think of democracy as like improv. You have an opportunity. You can still do a terrible scene. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it does put us in a slightly better position. From everything I've learned, I think the American people are chomping at the bit to do some new things politically.
Rosie Tran: It sounds ... Yeah.
John Opdyke: People can't wait. They're so sick and tired of just red, and blue. It's just, people are done.
Rosie Tran: Especially because of the divisiveness. I mean, that is been the theme I have heard from so many voters, colleagues, friends, coworkers, that they're just sick of the back and forth bickering. I mean, again, it's the point where people are blocking friends on Facebook and disowning family members because it becomes ... a lot of people identify so strongly with a certain belief that the XYZ Party, they're all idiots, or the ABC Party is all racist, like you said. Definitely we're in need of some reconstruction and evolution in our system. We got to wrap up in a few minutes. What is the main message of what you're advocating so that listeners who have learned hopefully a lot about open primaries can go and do more research or, I guess, any points that you missed or that I missed?
John Opdyke: No. I think we covered a lot of ground. I think if I had a parting message it would be go to our website and sign our petition to get the DNC and the RNC to open up the presidential primaries in all 50 states in the year 2020. That's a campaign we're running right now. I think also I think it's important to know that each one of us has the power and the capacity to generate new conversations in our lives. I think that I would encourage people to find some people that might not agree with you on certain things and talk to them, and talk to them about these things, and how they see our democracy, and are they interested in being part of some dialogue about how to improve things, because I honestly believe that we need to elevate the conversation about the process 10 times bigger than it is right now. It's growing, trust me. Five years ago, no one was talking about this. It's now a conversation. We the people can drive that conversation up and get it on the nightly news, and get it everywhere.
Rosie Tran: Not just that, but I think talking to people of different supposed political persuasions is very, very important because I do think we all have a lot more in common than we think. I was just talking about this with my husband. We went out with two of our friends that are dear friends of ours. There's always this saying, "Don't talk about politics or religion," but I think it's the opposite. I think we should be talking about politics, and religion, and pay and all these taboo things that we are supposed to not talk about because that opens up your mind into different points of view. We were sitting down. My husband is more left-leaning. I'm an Independent. My girlfriend is an anarchist and her husband is a Libertarian, and we talked for politics for about two hours in a non-personal way, which I mean we didn't take any of each other's comments personally or as an attack. I would encourage everyone to do that, because you definitely learn that we have more in common than not.
John Opdyke: Yeah. I think that's so important, is that kind of conversation you're describing is what people are hungry for actually, and the political parties and gatekeepers, they're not interested in people having that conversation. They're interested in us fighting and demonizing one another, so let's do something different, and let's do it at our dinner tables, and let's form political clubs, and political book clubs, and have all kinds of ... We the American people, we have to take the leadership on this. It ain't going to come from Washington. It's not going to come from a politician. It's got to come from the people saying, "Hey, we're done. We're doing something different. We're going to lead this," and I think that starts at dinner tables and over cocktails, I really do.
Rosie Tran: Well, maybe not too many cocktails.
John Opdyke: Or maybe you can never have too many cocktails.
Rosie Tran: Exactly, when you're talking politics, right?
John Opdyke: Right.
Rosie Tran: Well, it was a pleasure to have you on, and I really hope that more people ... Guys, if you're listening to the show, go and check out the website Open Primaries. Sign up and sign the petition, and hopefully we'll be able to get some evolution in our primary system, because it sounds like the open system is a little bit more aligned with American and human values than what we're currently dealing with.
John Opdyke: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on, Rosie.
Rosie Tran: Thank you so much, John. Guys, if you like the podcast, as always, what do I say? Go on Out of The Box Podcast on iTunes and leave a positive comment or a positive review. If you hate the podcast and you think I'm awful, that's fine. Go on iTunes and leave a negative review. More reviews push my numbers up and help other people find out about the podcast. Don't forget, I'm on Twitter at FunnyRosie. This has been Out of The Box Podcast with Rosie Tran.