Al Swift 2¢ Worth

Those Pesky Political Party Primaries

George Wallace famously asserted that “there’s not a dimes worth of difference between the two parties.” Ralph Nader agreed with him when he launched his own quixotic campaign. Most citizens proudly boast that they “Vote for the man, not the party.”

On the other hand the two parties see great differences. Each predicts disaster for the country if it loses. But citizens are not so sure.

Take Louisiana and Washington State. While they have little in common, they agree on one thing: political parties are not important.

In Louisiana, if one candidate doesn’t get 50% of the primary vote, the two top vote getters go into a run-off – regardless of party. The run-off could feature two Democrats, more likely two Republicans, but there is no provision to assure a contest between the two parties.

The people of Washington State – who would strongly resist adopting the Napoleonic Code and probably the Mardi Gras, recently pushed aside the legislature and the governor and adopted Louisiana’s primary election system. The Courts shot it down, but it surely was not a ringing endorsement for the value of the two parties.

It raises the question: What are primaries for anyway? Parties formed originally – (to George Washington’s horror and Thomas Jefferson’s delight) – along natural fault lines, differences on policy that existed within the body politic. The issues and even the parties have changed over time but they have always – so far – coalesced into two: a center left and center right party.

And they were essentially oligarchial. Patronage and corruption, bosses and “smoke filled rooms,” came to characterize the parties. The rank and file workers in the party had virtually no say in that selection of candidates. Bosses chose the candidates that would represent the party in the various races. The people recoiled and reforms began to cleanup and open the system

Primary elections were born. Instead of the nominees for office being selected by a few, the reform opened the system so any voter who identified with a political party could actually vote for the nominees.

One of Swift’s Laws is relevant here: Every reform leads to the abuses that require the next reform. The corollary is: All reforms can be carried to extremes.

The “primary” reforms largely worked. Big city bosses began to pass from the scene. Then the reforms went too far. Take Washington State: most citizens believe that Moses had an eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt have the right to vote in any party’s primary whether you support it’s goals or not.” They loved their blanket primary in which all the candidates for an office were listed and you could pick anyone of them. Thus you could vote in the Republican primary for Governor, the Democratic primary for Senator and the Socialist Worker’s Party primary for another office.

The result went way beyond limiting the power of the “bosses.” It virtually destroyed the two political parties. For years all the Democratic Party Chair did little besides try to raise enough money to pay his own salary. No one paid any attention to him or, in fact, the party. Today it is not that bad, but the parties are among the weakest in the land.

Louisiana has something even farther removed from the original purpose of the Primary, which was NOT just to whittle down the field of candidates. That’s all the Louisiana primary does.

This year’s is the first election in which Washington State voters use a system that reflects the original purpose of primaries. And are they upset!

But what they have now is a system that is very open – in the sense that everyone can vote by declaring themselves a member of a party (they just can’t choose to be a member of all parties. Thus the nominees will be more reflective of the rank and file.

What’s wrong with that?

Posted on Monday, August 15th, 2011
By: csh
Posted in: 2006
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