One of the great contributions that the progressive reformers of a century ago made to the politics of Wisconsin and the nation was the open primary.
Before Robert M. La Follette and the Wisconsin progressive movement placed the issue of how candidates were nominated for partisan offices at the forefront of the national agenda, the designation process was controlled by political bosses who took money from the robber barons of the Gilded Age and then nominated Republican and Democratic candidates who owed their allegiance to the bosses and the political paymasters rather than the people.
La Follette decried “the menace of the political machine” and detailed the corruption of the American political system by corporations, wealthy individuals and their stooges.
Why were the commands of the corporations heard and obeyed in the capitals of the state and nation”?
“It is because today there is a force operating in this country more powerful than the sovereign (citizenry) in matters pertaining to the official conduct. “The official obeys whom he serves. Nominated independently of the people, elected because there is no choice between candidates so nominated, the official feels responsibility to his master alone, and his master is the political machine of his party. The people whom he serves in theory, he may safely disobey; having the support of his political organization, he is sure of his re-nomination and knows he will be carried through the election because his opponent will offer nothing better to the long suffering voter…”
To change this dire circumstance, La Follette championed the open primary, which gave power to the people—not the bosses.
Open primaries could not be controlled by bosses because anyone could enter them, no matter what their ideology or past partisanship.
If a candidate aligned with the corporations wanted to be nominated, he would have to face the voters in an open primary. That meant that the corrupt politician could not be imposed on the process by the political bosses. As La Follette said when Wisconsin legislators embraced his proposal for open primaries in 1904: “The people shall rule.”
Now, more than a century after the state enacted the nation’s first open primary law, Wisconsin still makes it very easy for anyone to enter the primaries of the Democratic and Republican parties.
This has frustrated some Wisconsinites in recent weeks, as Republicans have announced plans to recruit “fake” Democrats to run in the primaries to nominate Democratic challenges to Republican state senators who are being recalled. The Republicans hope to create confusion among the voters, to force Democrats to spend precious campaign money and to delay the eventual day of reckoning for the legislative allies of Governor Scott Walker.