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Bernie Sanders Pushes For Overhaul Of Democratic Primary Process

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We start with politics. As the primary process begins to wind down, a lot of people are looking at the Democratic race, where Bernie Sanders continues to challenge Hillary Clinton. And they're asking, what does Sanders want? The Vermont senator now has a lot of clout within the Democratic Party. He's in the position to demand some changes, starting with the party's election process. Sanders doesn't like closed primaries where only registered Democrats can vote. NPR's Scott Detrow looks at what it would take to overhaul the primary process.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Bernie Sanders had another good night Tuesday, taking Oregon's primary. But at a California rally, he also talked about Kentucky, where he's trailing Hillary Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE)

BERNIE SANDERS: In a closed primary, something I am not all that enthusiastic about, where independents are not allowed to vote...

(BOOING)

DETROW: All year, Sanders has done better in contests where independents or even registered Republicans are allowed to participate. Of course, Sanders has also done well in caucuses, which are very closed and very limited compared to statewide primaries. There's a big philosophical split to consider, too, says University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket.

SETH MASKET: Is a primary just an election that your tax dollars are paying for and that helps determine who our leaders are? And if so, you know, you tend to think, well, sure, all of us should be allowed to participate in that.

DETROW: Masket says the other way to view a primary is as a political party making its most important decision, who to choose for its nominee.

MASKET: If that's what it is, well, then really shouldn't people who are members of that party be the ones who make that decision?

DETROW: In addition to open and closed primaries, several states have hybrid elections where independents can vote in a party primary. The most open format out there is the type that California has, a top-two primary. Voters can vote for any candidate they want in every race, and the top two finishers advance to November.

KIM ALEXANDER: We have seen a number of contests where in the general election you have a Democrat versus Democrat or occasionally Republican versus Republican, and that can make those contests more competitive.

DETROW: That's Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. She points out that system can also feel more restricted if you're a member another party. There is a big catch in California. The state's upcoming presidential primary is still partially closed. That could cause confusion for independent Sanders supporters who will have to specifically ask for a separate Democratic ballot. Sanders may ask for big changes to the primary system at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Seth Masket lays out how that could work.

MASKET: I doubt they would choose that, but let's say they did. You know, they could put a lot of pressure on state parties to comply with that. They could say, look, if you still want your full share of delegates in the next election, you'd better sign onto this.

DETROW: But elections are run by states, and most state legislatures don't seem to be too interested in changing their primaries. About 50 bills are introduced across the country each year to change the process. Most don't go anywhere. A push to give Colorado an open presidential primary died in the state senate earlier this month. In fact, just one state legislature has changed how its primaries work in recent years. That was Idaho, and they went from an open system to closed. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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