State Interests in the Primary Process

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I’d like to post a question that reader G-Veg sent to me regarding states and the primary process.

Cursory research suggests that the most common reason cited for states running Primaries is to avoid fraud.  This is certainly the reason cited by Progressives in Teddy Roosevelt’s time for campaign reform.  While not strictly focused on Primaries, 19th and early 20th Century Progressives made huge strides in dismantling political machines.  (Interestingly, at least in Pennsylvania and New York, primary contests have been paid for and managed by the state for as far back as I could research on line.  In Pennsylvania, for example, election officials ran primary contests at least as early as Lincoln’s election and there are records of New York City primaries for Mayor going back to 1850.)

Research suggests that we’ve been doing state paid for and managed primaries for quite some time with almost no thought as to whether there is even a legitimate state interest in the contests to begin with.  I suggest that there is no legitimate interest and that state patronage is both unconstitutional and irrational.

First, I’ll note what we all know: that we have a “Two Party System” by default, not law.  The Constitution of the United States makes no mention of the country’s political makeup or character.  That reality gives particular significance to Washington’s warnings about factionalism.

Second, the argument that State sponsorship controls fraud is, itself, a farce.  It does nothing of the kind because the “back room deals” Progressives sought to control continue to rule the process.  It seems like a well-intentioned but failed experiment.  It is an expensive one too.  In Pennsylvania, for example, a statewide election, whether primary or general, costs a touch more than $1 million (2010).

Third, even if State sponsorship controlled a host of ill effects like fraud, disputed outcomes, and mob selections of candidates, the state has no interest in contests.  So what if Party X chooses a union bullied candidate or one purchased lock, stock, and barrel by monied interests?  Party X can do what it wishes.  They can select by heredity if they want to.  As long as there is a robust general election, how candidates get on the ballot is largely irrelevant.

Fourth, state paid for and managed primaries force out of elections many millions of qualified citizens because there can never be more than two “real” parties as long as the coercive powers of the state are used to keep alternatives marginalized and disenfranchized.  Surely the state has an interest in promoting greater levels of public service among the citizenry and anything that discourages such participation should be overhauled.

For these reasons, I believe that states should stop paying for and managing primaries.  I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Personally I don’t think there’s much under the constitution that would allow the federal government to get the states out of elections, and any large-scale attempt to get the states out of the business may only enhance the power of the two-party system.  But I’d like to hear thoughts on this.

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  1. Do away with party registration. Let’s have real parties that you have to join (as opposed to ticking a box on a form). Thus only dues-paying members get to vote on who will be a candidate according to its own rules.

    This will never happen of course, but it’s fun to imagine what rules the parties might come up with

  2. At least from my reading of the Constitution, we don’t even need to have primaries. There is nothing in the Con itself that prohibits anyone, assuming they meet the qualifications, from being on the ballot (at least not in the Con itself) or writing in whomever you please. But then, I don’t see anywhere in the Constitution where we (joe citizen) actually elects the President/ Vice-President. This is left to “electors” appointed as each state legislature directs. Theoretically, these electors could choose whomever qualifies for the office, even if the citizenry had never heard of him or her.

    The practiced reality, of course, is quite different. There is probably not a very practical way of doing it without state involvement with primaries, and I don’t see how it would improve things anyway. TV coverage and advertising is what makes candidates, so whatever system you have, you still need money backers and party apparatus, and that is where the corruption comes in.

  3. This seems a very interesting concept, though I might be reading G-veg’s proposal incorrectly. The idea that the primary process is just a way of winnowing down the selection of candidates into just two major candidates does seem a bit of a waste when situations like the one we had this year happen that the “major party candidate” is not at all the one most people in the designated “constituency” is excited about. To have multiple national conventions selecting candidates to go up against each other in a presidential election that really pits all the candidates against each other seems interesting. I’m not a history buff in the least. How was it done in earlier presidential elections? Who selected the party representatives? From what I can recall it seems that at most there were only ever 4 candidates vying for the presidency, but I don’t know how they entered the race.

    I’m all for saving money and making the elections even more representative of the national population and not having to settle so often on the “major party candidate.” I just don’t know exactly what it would look like. Nor, as you say, Paul, how it would start to happen. Again, not a history buff (though I would like to be).

  4. I am confused. If you don’t have a primary then what do you do? Just not have an election? Sorry – but that makes no sense.

    The point of the primary is to find out who is going to represent that party – what could possibly be wrong with that?

  5. The point is not that there should be no primaries but that the State shouldn’t be in the business of determining who the candidates for parties are. The State shouldn’t pay for and manage the selection of party candidates and should confine itself to overseeing the General Election.

    Consider that there are several dozen third parties in the US. The Libertarian Party is probably the best known but we have a Green Party, a Communist Party, and a Constitution Party as well. Set aside, for a moment, any feelings you may have about the ideologies of these non-main stream political parties.

    Why are they any less deserving of State sponsorship than the Democratic or Republican Parties?

    As it stands, the State pays for and manages what is, in essence, a party activity. The result is that the State uses its coercive powers to reinforce the extra-constitutional requirement that one be a member of one of the two main parties if one is to hold elective office. Indeed, since only members of the two main parties can get elected due to State manipulation of election laws and administration of voter registration, the State determines their citizens’ vote.

    If the disenfranchised were in a protected class, the very same actions would be acknowledged by all three branches of government to be unconstitutional. Since the disenfranchised are those with different political views, we allow it.

    The result is the same, the victims are different.

    What if we were to say to the two main parties (I acknowledge here that this a theoretical point since the only way to make this happen is for the representatives of the two major parties to voluntarily cede power) “you may place whomever you wish on the ballot and may arrive at your choice by whatever means you wish but the State will not pay for it and will not manage it”?

  6. For what it’s worth, not that G-Veg is arguing for the abolition of primaries, but the current system is of a recent vintage. At least in terms of the presidential nomination process, primaries did not become the almost exclusive means of nominating presidential candidates until 1972. There had been primaries held for many decades before then, but the system was a combination of open primaries and closed party conventions, and the nominees were decided at the national party conventions. I’m not necessarily advocating a return to the older way of doing things myself, but am merely pointing out that primaries are not the only way to determine nominees.

  7. “The point is not that there should be no primaries but that the State shouldn’t be in the business of determining who the candidates for parties are.”

    it’s not the ‘State’ that decides. It’s put up to the people of that state to select.

  8. I am really ignorant about this. I did not know the state controlled the primaries. i thought that the parties did– in State A, the State A Repubs would control the A Repub primary. Not right?

    re: state paid for and managed primaries force out of elections many millions of qualified citizens because there can never be more than two “real” parties as long as the coercive powers of the state are used to keep alternatives marginalized and disenfranchized.

  9. My understanding is:

    1) Party members in that state fund the primaries.
    2) Citizens, not the State, elects who they want representing their party during the primaries by a fair vote.

  10. I think G-Veg is being rather punctilious in his complaints. The expense of primaries is a trivial component of state and local budgets, a legal architecture is necessary for allocating ballot access, and the distinction between generic voluntary associations and ‘official’ parties is observed in other countries. It would not surprise me if you could demonstrate that primaries were a contributor to the development of a sterile political duopoly, but I will wager you there are two or three stronger vectors.

    1. We have an unadulterated first-past-the-post electoral system.

    2. There are social and cultural cleavages in American society, but the manifestation of them in particular persons tends in our own time to be strongly correlated. People who are on side A in one nexus of disputes also tend to fall on side B in another nexus of disputes, so you have a political party which promotes both.

    3. Sheer inertia.

    Several modifications:

    1. Supplement the election of legislators single-member district constituencies. Each party would nominate a reserve list of at-large candidates in addition to its district candidates. The sum of votes received by its candidates in all constituencies compared to the sum of votes received by all candidates in all constituencies would determine the number of seats the party received in the legislature. From that total, you would subtract the number won in district contests and then fill in the remainder from the reserve list. The reserve list could be constructed from the party’s unsuccessful district candidates. Simply rank-order the party’s unsuccessful challengers according to the ratio of votes they received to the ratio of votes received by the winning candidate in their district and then rank order behind them the party’s defeated incumbents according to the same metric.

    2. Relax the requirement that districts be equipopulous, develop a practice manual for the construction of districts which delineates impersonal rules for the construction of districts, and devolve any residual discretionary decisions over district lines to panels of local trial judges. You do not need precisely equipopulous districts, and it is (I would submit) better for particular counties and municipalities to be represented as integral wholes. What you need is to avoid systemic over-representation of certain interests in one election cycle after another. (As used to be the case in apportionment of state legislators).

    3. Require at the very least rotation in office for legislators. No one serves more than eight years in any bloc of twelve.

    4. Adopt a practice of ordinal balloting for all competitive elections. Have voters rank-order the candidates on the ballot rather than simply casting a ballot for one to the exclusion of the others. Count ordinal ballots as follows:

    a. Tally the first preference votes of each candidate
    b. Take the ballots of the candidate in last place and distribute them to the other candidates according to the second place preference of his supporters.
    c. Rinse and repeat until one candidate is left standing.

    5. Have local authorities classify each district as ‘competitive’ or ‘non-competitive’ in anticipation of each election. A ‘non-competitive’ district might be one represented by a given political party for at least 20 of the previous 24 years. Because district-boundaries change, authorities will have to construct a simulation of representation by looking at who represented the various components of the district in previous districting schemes.

    6. Have different nomination schemes for competitive and non-competitive districts.

    a. For competitive districts, have each political party hold a district caucus among its card-carrying and dues-paying members. They could subsequently hold a primary among their registrants according to their discretion, but that would not be a requirement. Once the caucus was complete, the party would pay a deposit to the board of elections for ballot access, refundable with a given level of performance.

    b. For non-competitive districts, have aspirant candidates petition among the party’s registrants and then pay the deposit out of pocket. All aspirant candidates would appear on the general election ballot with their party registration listed, but none would be the party’s official candidate. The practice of ordinal balloting would excise any dilemmas and perversities that might arise from the presence of multiple candidates from a single party on the ballot. This practice would replace our current practice of having party primaries as tantamount to election in non-competitive constituencies.

  11. I wonder what would happen if the presidents elected by the electoral collage had to not like being president (such as John Adam) because one major problem you run into is presidents acting like tyrants such as Andrew Jackson, Bill Clinton, and Barrack Obama.

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