Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Primary versus Caucus

I recently served on the resolutions committee and attended the Washington State Democratic Party Convention. As you might imagine there is a strong controversy about whether the state’s national convention delegates should be determined by caucus or primary. It pits state electoral traditions against national party rules. It pits populists against party regulars. And it is going to continue to be a problem until an equitable solution can be worked out. This article is an attempt to arrive at what such a solution might be.

How did we get here? In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 198 that change the state’s traditional closed primary system to a blanket primary system similar to that that used in Washington State in which voters could voter their preferences regardless of party. In the 2000 case of California Democratic Party v. Jones, the US Supreme Court ruled that the recently-enacted California blanket primary violated the political party’s first amendment right of freedom of association. In this case the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, the Libertarian Party of California, and the Peace and Freedom Party had all filed suit against the state of California and won. That decision also applied to the Washington state primaries (thank you, California).

Within the parties there is strong sentiment against blanket primaries not only because of the technical first amendment violation but because they inhibit the control parties have over their own “brand”. Fringe candidates (such as the followers of Lyndon LaRouche) can claim a party affiliation even though the party itself finds the candidate abhorrent. On the other hand, there is strong sentiment within the voting community that rejects the idea of any strong party affiliation. A great many voters want to have the capacity to select candidates regardless of party. Furthermore, in localities in which one party predominates, the primary serves as the more significant election. Voters who wish to cast a vote in a race in the minority party have no vote in other races between candidates in the majority party.

At the moment party rules leave it to the jurisdictional party legislative bodies to designate and officially sanction party candidates. While this is traditional and reasonably democratic, it is cumbersome and requires potential candidates to jump through some procedural hoops. In jurisdictions in which a party is barely functioning an appropriate endorsement body might not convene in a timely manner for a campaign. This could be streamlined somewhat if the party decided to allow executive committees to sanction candidates but at the price of democratic process. Furthermore, putting it completely in the hands of the party leaves non-aligned voters with direct input whatsoever. Their only hope is that the party keeps them in mind when selecting candidates.

It should be noted that compared to other countries the party system in the United States is abysmally weak. In parliamentary systems, all significant political action takes place through the party. American parties are just not that strong and I don’t think Americans would want them to be. (While American parties may aspire to that sort of dominance, they should, as a practical matter, just give up that dream. It ain’t gonna happen.)

So what might a reasonable middle ground be?

On the face of it, it seems odd that a state government can spend taxpayer money running an election that is essentially a party function. It bespeaks a certain amount of collusion between the major parties to co-opt public resources for their own particular benefit. Indeed, constitutionally the government is only required to hold a single election, not a bunch of pre-election elections. One could argue that it is in the government’s interest to narrow the field of candidates such that the final office holders are elected by a majority rather than a potentially small plurality. This is a reasonable justification for a top-two primary. And by this reasoning the primary is a party-neutral process by which to have a meaningful general election at the end of an electoral process. Essentially the general election becomes a run-off election between the two highest vote-getters.

One might ask, how is a top-two primary effectively different from a blanket primary? In a blanket primary each party is assured of having at least one candidate in the general election even if the party candidate had fewer votes that two or more candidates of the opposing party. This may be a tad undemocratic but it does throw a bone to the official parties. The parties may have cut their own throats by having blanket primaries thrown out. In a top-two primary system party identification is taken out of the equation entirely and parties have to actually meet a competitive threshold to have their candidates on the general election ballots.

The parties’ only hope of recovery their capability to have a sub-minority candidate on the general election ballot lies in a potential lawsuit that may be brought in which a given party can argue they were damaged by a candidate who self-identified as a member of the party without official party sanctioning. The court will have to decide between the right of a party to protect its brand and the right of the government to meaningful elections in which a sub-minority candidate takes precedence over a minority candidate. It seems to me that the proper decision would be the one that makes for a more democratic election process than one that protects the privilege of a political organization, that is to say, the top-two primary process.

The political parties need to suck it up and prepare to operate in a regime that gives them no special privileges. (To the degree that party ranks are occupied by people grasping for power by undemocratic means, it would certainly frustrate their efforts.) Every general election would be a decision between the candidates who have clearly-demonstrated popular support.

Since I am skeptical that the Republican Party would ever cede any of its political clout for the greater good I make no appeal to them. But I do appeal to the Washington State Democratic Party to embrace the top-two primary system as the more democratic solution to electoral process. And I call on the Washington State Democratic Party to adjust their rules and practices accordingly for life in a new sort of world. I also call on them to stop wasting time and money trying to fight a process that more accurately expresses the will of the people merely to protect the party’s selfish interest.

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