Why We Have Primaries, and Why We Shouldn’t Have Them Any More

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, many Rhode Islanders will go to the polls (many will already have voted by mail), and cast ballots in primary elections for everything ranging from U.S. Congress to town council. Unaffiliated voters will be asked to choose which party’s primary they want to vote in, and thanks to a quirk in RI law, many will temporarily be affiliated with the party they choose.

In 19 State House districts and 14 State Senate districts, Democrats have at least a two-way choice; in more than few State Senate districts, voters have a three- or four-way choice. In one State Senate district, Republican voters have a primary.

But why do we have these primaries, why can an unaffiliated voter vote in them, and why does the Secretary of State and Board of Elections run what are essentially internal party matters?

How American hostility to political parties made them stronger

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”

George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

“The political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”

E.E. Schnattschneider, Party Government, 1942

Americans are not alone in the democratic world in our antipathy towards political parties, but we are the only ones who enshrined that antipathy into law.

I have those two quotes above to give a sense of where Americans tend to be when we discuss this issue. Many Americans still approvingly approach that quote from Washington, who expressed hostility towards parties. Of course, Washington had been opposed by a set of anti-administration legislators who were slowly coalescing into what was generally called “the Republican party” in its time but is today known as the Democratic-Republican Party and is claimed by the modern Democratic Party as its ancestor. Meanwhile, another set of pro-administration legislators and members of Washington’s cabinet were coalescing into what became the Federalist Party, which wasn’t quite the forerunner of any party, but soon became nearly irrelevant on the national stage.

My point here is that people almost immediately ignored Washington.

The second quote, from political scientist E.E. Schnattschneider, is very often used by political scientists, as it emphasizes how fundamentally important political parties are to democracy. Schnattschneider was writing a few decades after a wave of reforms had introduced new ways of voting and, stripped away old methods of electioneering, and things like nonpartisan elections were being implemented at a local level. A decade or so after Schnattschenider wrote the above American political scientists would examine the major political parties and determine they were so close together on the issues that they no longer presented a real choice to voters.

So how did we get from Washington speaking to a nation fracturing into political factions to one in which a political scientist needed to argue for the existence of parties which were rapidly converging on policy? One of the largest reasons were the Progressives.

If you’ve only heard of the Progressive Movement from conservative talk shows, you probably know them as a villainous group of societal engineers led by Woodrow Wilson. If you only know them from school text books, you probably see them more as people advocating for better social conditions via Jane Addams. You might know that there were progressives who advocated for things like eugenics.

The thing is, the Progressive Movement was a really vast and all-encompassing movement. It included presidents from both parties, it took up the causes of Prohibition and women’s suffrage. It also heavily advocated political reform. And that’s where we get to primaries.

Prior to the progressives, parties tended to pick their candidates through conventions, where local party members would get together and decide who would run for what. These tended to be dominated by a boss, who remained boss by handing out patronage jobs for voters and supporters. It was incredibly corrupt, but also incredibly effective at getting people (especially minorities and immigrants) to go vote. The years of bossism routinely saw presidential year voter turnout between 70% – 80%, and midterms were about ten points less than that. All the problems of restricted franchise (property requirements, race requirements, gender requirements) do need to be factored into this.

For the Progressive Movement, this was really bad. Power was concentrated in the hands of a few bosses, civil service wasn’t about merit but about who you knew, and regular people didn’t really have a say. So they pushed for, and got passed a new system: the primary (among other things like recall elections, voter initiatives, and the direct election of United States Senators). And it tells you what a real issue these problems were that they were able to get a ton of reforms passed.

What the primaries did was shift the administration of the nomination of candidates from the hands of the parties to the hands of the state. Instead of parties running things themselves, the impartial administration of the state would do it, so no thumbs were put on any scales.

What the party bosses realized, though, was that this wasn’t really going to harm them too much. In fact, it gave a lot of their work the veneer of an impartial, state-run process. Not only that, but they could use these new rules to smash upstart parties that were threatening them at the municipal and state level. Since the states, counties, and cities were now responsible for printing up and distributing ballots, and would have to administrate dozens of local primaries, it would be expensive for them to do it for just any party. Parties would now have to meet certain requirements, like a vote threshold, to be recognized as a party and be eligible to hold a state-run primary. And only such recognized parties would be able to get on the ballot.

In this way, the major political parties transformed themselves into quasi-public institutions, erecting barriers to competition, and funneling all political activity through their banners. Today, two parties have a virtual monopoly on political activity in Rhode Island.

Letting just anyone in

As a result of these reforms, voters are now asked to affiliate (or not) with one of the recognized parties. But being affiliated with a party means almost nothing, at least in Rhode Island. You pay no dues, you attend no meetings, you decide nothing. This is not party membership, not in the way people in years might describe someone as a “card-carrying member of the Communist Party”. That, at least, conveyed participation of some sort. The parties demand, and expect, nothing of those who affiliate with them.

Currently, in RI, affiliation is supposed to be a prerequisite to serving on a ward, town, or district party committee (at least under the Democratic Party’s bylaws), which are primarily tasked with endorsing a candidate in the primary. Because the committees are so irrelevant, few people care about that requirement. There are likely unaffiliated voters on those committees, and there may be people who changed their affiliation to the other party and yet still serve on those committees. Then there are the sorts of people who retain their affiliation, serve on a committee, and yet donate to the opposing party’s candidates.

In most other parts of the world, voters don’t affiliate with parties. Voters are registered to vote, but then party membership is an extra step outside of the registration process, where you pay dues to a party and are given privileges and responsibilities as a result. Millions of people may still vote for a party and its candidates, but most political parties in the world don’t have more than a hundred thousand or so members. As a result of the institutionalization of parties, American political parties are often referred to as the largest parties in the world, since they often have tens of millions of “members” (affiliated voters). But again, it’s apples and oranges, as you can’t really compare American political affiliation with other countries’ party membership.

Until relatively recently in RI, party affiliation did give voters the privilege of selecting their party’s candidates in the primary. This was the “closed” primary – requiring that voters must at least be affiliated with a party to participate in its internal democracy.

However, after the progressive reforms restricting ballot access, and especially after Democrats solidified control over the state, the primaries became the sole time many places in Rhode Island got to actually experience competitive elections. This left the majority of voters unable to meaningfully cast votes. As a result, there was a push to open primaries up, resulting in the modern system of a “semi-closed” primary, where unaffiliated voters can declare affiliation at the time of the primary and vote in a party primary. Rhode Island has since made this very temporary, by stationing people in polling places during the primary so a voter can immediately disaffiliate after voting.

Many states in the country have an even more expansive version, called the “open” primary, whereby voters of any affiliation may participate in any party’s primary. Then, in a few western states, there is now what’s called the Top Two primary, where all the candidates, regardless of their party, are running against each other, and two people who win the most votes go on the election, regardless of whether they represent the same party or not. Some state representatives here in Rhode Island have advocated for that system.

Why we should get rid of most of it

There were real problems with the old system of machine bosses and patronage. A U.S. Senate candidate literally bought his seat prior to the Seventeenth Amendment mandating direct elections of Senators (he was not seated, but he bought it again and then got seated).

But the result of our hostility to political parties hasn’t resulted in their weakening, it’s resulted in their strengthening. Today, all political activity is virtually required to be done under the banner of either the Republican or Democratic Party. And it results in headaches for voters, candidates, and party leaders alike.

Each year, there are battles over the Democratic Party endorsements. In a more closed system, these would hardly be an issue: parties, as political actors, should obviously get to pick and choose their candidates. But when nearly all political activity has to be done through the Democratic Party, the endorsement becomes a major point of contention. Worse, when voters view primaries as essentially non-partisan, they get upset that Party is even picking winners and losers. And it turns what should be routine into a weeks-long fight.

I think we need to talk about what purpose these primaries are serving. Are they actually serving voters, parties, or the state? Only the most active voters vote in primaries, they lead to vindictive battles within the parties, and the cost the state a great deal.

In my view, the ideal solution would be to take a step back. The State should only be involved in the general election. Ballot recognition should be based on something other than presidential or gubernatorial vote threshold, it should be number of candidates or even a set amount of money paid to the State for the cost of printing ballots. Parties should be able to determine how they select their candidates, whether through a primary or at a statewide convention, or at the local committee level. Party elections should either be done by the parties themselves, or by paying the State to run them. The State should stop asking voters to affiliate, and just focus on registering people. They should notify parties about new registrations, and then parties could advertise membership to voters if they wanted.

I think we would greatly benefit from such a system. First, it would increase competition in the general election, leading to more votes there. Voters would benefit from having choices on Election Day. We might see that there actually is room for multiple parties in some parts of the state; for example, you might see a minority leader in the Providence City Council for the first time since David Segal represented the Greens from 2003-2007.

Second, it would alter the dynamics for parties themselves. Real membership would give party leaders leverage over particular troublesome candidates: cross us, and we kick you out. But similarly, for a large mass of party members, it would give them leverage as well: don’t listen to us, and we’ll leave and take a large chunk of your support with us. This would make party leaders both more dominant over, and yet more responsive to the party membership. Real membership would also give parties a mass of self-identified pool of people to draw for elections work like canvassing, phone calls, get-out-the-vote, and poll-monitoring.

Third, it would solve a problem of election cost. One of the complaints about sending every voter an application to vote by mail this primary was that it would be extremely costly (admittedly, I think this was disingenuous). Well, if the State was no longer involved in running primaries, or it could bill the parties for the primaries, the cost issue goes away. It frees up resources (people, time, money) to ensure that the general election goes as smoothly as possible, the moment when most voters will actually show up and interact with the system. Plus, it gets rid of the headache of when primaries should be held, collecting all that information about affiliation, attempts to disqualify people from getting on the primary ballot at all. The administration of elections gets a lot easier when the State no longer is involved in internal party matters.

The simple fact of the matter is that primaries have led to a lot of agony here in Rhode Island, and we simply don’t need to have them.

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