In recent elections, reform-minded Americans have had their usual doubts about the manifestly undemocratic and clunky Electoral College, and a completely new set of deep doubts have arisen about how accurately the electronic voting systems have recorded the wishes of voters. There has also been some justifiable concern about how partisan election officials have purged the voter rolls. Despite the various concerns, and attempts to address them, the use of primary elections to choose party candidates has, surprisingly, escaped critical examination. People discuss how to make the primaries more efficient, more representative. But the real question should be, why are they held at all?
They are unique to the United States, which is even more anomalous, considering its national reputation, maybe not always deserved, for keeping government out of civic affairs. No other democratic country with embedded electoral traditions allows a state or federal government to determine how political parties choose their candidates or to run elections for them. Although it was only in the 1970s that primaries supplanted party conventions as the means of choosing presidential candidates, familiarity has bred undeserved contentment with the process. Primaries have been part of the U.S. electoral system for a century, and have thus acquired a patina of constitutional respectability, even though the Founding Fathers wisely never mentioned them, nor indeed political parties, for which George Washington and others had a profound distrust. The change has not necessarily advanced democracy, let alone the Democrats.
AN ACCELERATED SCHEDULE—Under discussion now is a move by several state governments to hold their primaries earlier in the year. Nevada is seeking to hold a primary for Democrats before the traditional lead-off polling in New Hampshire, and South Carolina will stage its primary right afterwards. The number of states that participate in Super Tuesday on February 5 could leap next year from six to fourteen, with powerhouses like California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey joining in. Less than a month after the Iowa caucuses, the nominations could already be decided on both sides.
Since anything that puts an end to the opportunity for auto-evisceration that is a presidential primary has to be a good thing, a concentrated early primary may be welcome news. It would allow a rapid nomination and would give the winning candidate time to brush off some of the mud slung before the general election.
On the other hand, it means that prospective candidates to be the presidential nominee are already on the hoof a year in advance. Already 19 candidates (give or take Newt Gingrich) have declared or are “exploring” a run for president. The very weekend that Hillary Clinton announced that she was “in to win,” New Mexico governor Bill Richardson pitched himself as a “uniter, a healer,” and Kansas senator Sam Brownback posed as a “full-scale Ronald Reagan conservative.” They are all spending freely and are prepared to keep on sprinkling greenbacks for the next year. And after a year, they will have to raise—and spend—even larger sums of money in a very short time to compete in the official primary election circuit.
So the other effect of the concentrated primaries is that the financial barrier for candidates is higher than ever. In general, only the rich need apply—or perhaps even more pernicious, those who are backed by the rich, since as we know, there are the occasional eccentric progressive billionaires.
In fact, instead of tinkering with the details, we might well reconsider the whole tedious and retrogressive machinery of the primaries, perverse both in principle and in practice. Having begun as a means of freeing politics from the smoke-filled rooms of the party machines, they have become the method by which hugely expensive rubber-chicken-filled banqueting rooms dominate politics. It is through the primaries that big money gets most leverage in the political process. A candidate as an individual rather than a party organization has to raise huge amounts of money for a primary election.
The grueling marathon is more a test of who can raise the most campaign cash than who can get the most votes. You may remember that Bill Clinton was not the front-runner early on in 1992. He lost the New Hampshire primary, but he carried on getting money when Paul Tsongas’s political base ran out of funds and he had to drop out.
It’s not a pretty picture. The primaries are an inverted Darwinian struggle to see which candidate has the least scruples about digging up the most dirt on his rivals, and can spend the most money to broadcast the slurs. Let us remember that the GOP picked up the Willy Horton slur from the Democratic primaries. At the end of this intra-party struggle, the exhausted victor is supposed to rally all the people who have been campaigning against him or her for a year to go out and canvass for the victor in the general election.
The need for money distorts the political campaigns and thus the platforms of the candidates. As a general rule, someone who wants to make the rich less so begins with a considerable handicap in the primaries. Candidates skew their policies towards the checkbooks as much as the voters. Their positions on health care, the Middle East, gun reform, transportation, Cuba, abortion and many other significant issues will be triangulated in a complex political calculus to garner maximum contributions as well as votes.
That is not to say that the voters are without power. Primary voters tend to be self-selected, more committed and ideological than the general electorate. The pernicious effects of that were clear with Bush senior, Bob Dole, and now John McCain, who as Republicans have all had to appear far more rigidly conservative in their positions than their records would otherwise suggest. The good news is that this tends to make them unelectable. The exception to this that has proven the rule is George W. Bush, who managed to sail under false centrist colors because the Christian right knew where his deeply conservative heart really was.
However, even on the Democratic side, the contortions of policy lead to a well-deserved public mistrust of politicians, who tailor their messages to different blocs of voters and check-writers. In January, John Edwards spoke to a conference in Israel, where he implied that he supported war with Iran and talked about keeping “All options on the table,” presumably with potential donors in mind, while at the same time he was busily disavowing the war in Iraq for voters. Any candidate who wants to campaign for a single payer health-care system, popular with Democratic voters, can not only kiss goodbye any health insurance company donations but will have to accept that his rivals will clean up from them in return for silence or obfuscation on the issue.
VOTERS’ RIGHTS—At present, in most states primary-election voters will have already declared their party allegiances when they come to the polls. To an outsider, this makes a mockery of the secret ballot, since voters’ preferences are signaled on the public record for anyone to see. In an ideal world, of course, no harm would come to anyone for voting the wrong way . . . but has anyone noticed anything especially idealistic about the current GOP?
Even accepting that a tick on a registration form gives membership privileges to closed primary voters, there can be few excuses for the mockery of the democratic process that is the “open primary,” which lets supporters of the opposing party muscle in and pick your party’s candidate. In more than twenty states, you can sabotage the opposition in this way in the privacy of the polling booth. Whatever the views of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, it is clear that most Democrats in her district wanted her to represent them; but McKinney has twice been unseated by a combination of out-of-state money and Republican crossover votes in an open primary, in between winning a general election handsomely.
In a free society, as long as no criminal activity takes place within independent associations like parties, government should not interfere with how they order their affairs. Why shouldn’t Democrats keep Republicans, or indeed professed Independents, from interfering in their internal affairs, one of the most important of which is surely their choice of whom to represent them in election campaigns?
In fact, an American political party has little or no choice about its candidates. It is carpetbagger heaven out there. Anyone with a bankroll can apply. New York’s billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg, a registered Democrat for many years, decided to run on the Republican ticket simply because it was cheaper and easier to buy the nomination.
Supporters of open primaries argue that they “increase voter participation,” but there is little evidence of this. Indeed, since those who make this argument often spend so much time filtering the electoral rolls for alleged felons, there is room to doubt their sincerity.
In any case, this imaginary benefit is nullified by a certain reality: that the primaries turn voters into consumers of the policies of any personality with enough cash to run and to advertise themselves with all the sincerity and political content of a new toothpaste. The need to win an unknown and amorphous mass of voters has led to massive expenditures on television advertising, which in turn leads to huge demands for cash and all the consequences. That expenditure spills over into the general election, where at least public financing takes on some of the strain.
In many countries, parties are not allowed to abuse the airwaves in this way. Britain, for example, has very strict limits on spending by candidates. The Supreme Court’s laughable invocation of the First Amendment to stop restrictions on spending is reminiscent of Anatole France’s comment that “The law in its wisdom allows both the rich and the poor to sleep under the bridges over the Seine.”
When campaign donations have such a disproportionate effect on policies, primaries deprive party supporters, or members as they are misnamed, of any real input into candidate or party platforms. In other democratic countries, ordinary party members can usually propose policies, choose—and lose—the leadership of their organizations. The Democratic primaries have been turning the party more and more into a P.O. box for corporate donations and reducing Democratic supporters to voting fodder, which is exactly where Tammany Hall had them before reformers instituted primaries, which were invented to break its power.
MUTING OPPOSITION—The system also has an effect on the political process, serving to make effective opposition much more difficult. In a parliamentary system, shortly after an election the defeated party chooses either to give its leader another chance, or picks someone new to carry the standard, so there is an acknowledged leader of the opposition. With the primaries and the attenuated party system, Democrats in opposition can wallow leaderless for the three years of a presidential term and then tear themselves apart in bitterly contested primaries.
This rudderlessness could afflict Republicans as well as Democrats, but this tends not to be. The Democratic Party still has the vestiges of a grass-roots organization, representing vociferous interest groups. The modern GOP is much more Bolshevik in its ideology and organization. When Karl Rove issues orders, Republican operatives all over the country tend to move in concert. The Democrats have no equivalent commissar, and even if they did, no one would take too much notice.
ALTERNATIVES AND THINGS TO AVOID—Of course, there may be worse things than primaries. In many other countries, where there is proportional representation party bosses dictate who gets on the party list, and in Britain the ever-eager-to-learn Tony Blair has been busily introducing candidate selections that exclude anyone who is insufficiently supportive of his style of leadership. Indeed, he has cemented his control by repelling half the Labour Party’s membership since he took office.
As with the introduction of primaries themselves, there are often unintended consequences. It would be foolish to rush in with any kind of panacea when it comes to change, but we should surely be thinking about alternatives. For example:
• Hold the party convention early. In fact, hold it immediately after an unsuccessful presidential election, to choose the leadership and policies for the time in opposition and to give a candidate a good three years to build a reputation with the electorate.
• Build an actual party. There are over sixty million registered Democrats. If they were to join up as real party members, even paying a nominal subscription fee of $10 a year, not only could they fund elections without another corporate check, they would have some serious input in the matter of choosing candidates. A participation fee, no matter how nominal, would be a better test of party loyalty than just ticking a box when registering to vote.
• Use new technology to communicate. At one time, it could be argued that only government had the resources to canvass the opinions of party supporters. Apart from the very poor job that government has been doing in conducting elections recently, the technology and the need are now there for parties to seize control back from the state. With the growth of the Internet, as organizations like MoveOn.org have shown, party activities and fundraising can be much more democratically organized, cutting out expensive and sleazy TV advertising campaigns and putting the voter back in control of policy decisions and candidate choice.
• Consider new voting systems. In many other democracies, first-past-the-post elections have been abandoned for transferable voting systems. More people would vote if they thought that their vote was not wasted in elections where incumbents have a lock on re-election. A transferable vote allows anyone who so desires to vote for a Nader, or any other non-traditional party candidate, and not feel that it would be a wasted ballot, since if the voter’s first choice lost, the vote would be moved to a safer alternative. Ireland has multimember constituencies, designed to allow minorities (of all kinds) representation while keeping the close connection between legislators and voters—not dissimilar to the proposals Lani Guinier made that had her swift-boated out of the Clinton Court as a “quota queen.”
With its electronic voting, Supreme Court election-fixing and Homeland Security, American democracy appears less and less of a given with each presidential signing statement. Time may be running out for a critical examination of things we’ve taken for granted but that have led us to this pass.