September is over, and with it summer, Labor Day, the celebration of National Potato Month… and the 2018 primary election season. Just two month before the November election that could decide the nation’s political course for the next two years, candidates have finally been selected in a process that began in some states all the way back in March!
This is, therefore, a good time to ask: are primaries, and in some cases, conventions, really the best way to select our candidates for public office? Or like many other kinds of reform, does voter involvement contribute to the very partisan atmosphere that many voters — although not necessarily those participating in candidate selection — decry, promoting non-participation in the political process?
Instinctively, most people endorse the idea of voters picking their party’s candidate. The previous method, party selection, was often portrayed as occurring in the “smoke-filled back room” of some creaky party headquarters by some non-representative boss and his stooges. Progressive reformers in the early 1900s promoted the primary, like the referendum, initiative and recall, as modernizations that would take power away from presumably corrupt politicians — party leaders and legislatures — and instead empower the voters to choose candidates, permit direct voter decision-making on policies, and remove officeholders without waiting for an election.
The problem with primaries, especially in a more partisan era where voters have pretty much sorted themselves ideologically into the two major parties, is that the so-called reform has become a major contributor to the problem that discourages moderate voters from participating in politics: partisanship.
Better informed and more highly motivated people are more likely to vote than their less informed and less motivated counterparts. In a general election, the rate of participation varies from around 40% in most off-years (like 2018) to 60% in a presidential election year. So right off the bat, a substantial percentage of voters — disproportionately the less ideologically rigid — opt out of influencing selection of public officials. Moreover, there is a significant drop-off rate for down-ballot candidates, so even those who do come out to vote for president, for example, lose interest while in the voting booth (or wherever they vote) by the time they get to, say, city council or school board.
But these are impressive turn-out rates when compared to primaries. A new study by the Bipartisan Policy Center has just found that while participation in the 2018 primaries for federal office increased from the level four years ago to 46 million from 32 million, the percent of eligible voters participating rose only to 19.9% from a miserable 14.3% in 2014. (Both Democratic and Republican participation increased.) Combine this paltry turnout with the fact that only 8 states have run-offs that ensure that the party nominee has received a majority of votes, and the result is that those appearing on the fall ballot as nominees have invariably been chosen by a fraction of the eligible voters in their districts or states, and that fraction, almost without exception, tends to be more ideologically extreme than voters overall.
Politicians know who elects them, and it should come as little surprise that most, in most cases, they will appeal to that select sliver of voters whom they must satisfy. This behavior is true not only at election time, but when deciding how to cast votes in committee and on the floor, or when urging party leaders not to bring issues before the Congress at all.
It is difficult, of course, to argue for a less participatory mechanism for selecting candidates, although there is a healthy discussion underway about whether the political system might not function more effectively were there less transparency. Consider Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania last year; he won a traditionally Republican district because he veered away from the Democratic party’s position on a host of issues, enhancing his appeal to general election voters. Had the nominee been selected in a primary dominated by party activists instead of by the local organization, Lamb might well have been defeated by a more liberal rival who would have lost the special election.
A more salable strategy than arguing for a return to the smoke-filled back room might be to find ways to expand participation in primaries so that a more diverse cohort of voters selects candidates. I, for one, am no fan of open primaries where non-party registrants are given the ability to intrude into the choice of nominees; at a minimum, those selecting the candidate should demonstrate sufficient fealty to the party to register as members before assuming that power.
Boosting primary (or even general election) participation is tricky, but there are several fairly easy ways to reform primaries to produce candidates who reflect a broader swath of voter sentiment.
- First, the no-brainer: get rid of the restrictive voting rules used to purge, intimidate and discourage voter (and especially minority voter) participation.
- Expand opportunities for voting by mail and early voting rather than limiting voting to a single day.
- Consolidate primaries so there is greater awareness of “Primary Day” as there is “Election Day.” Instead of stringing the process out from March to September, pick a day for national primaries that makes sense — I would argue for immediately after Labor Day so nominees are chosen based on issues as they exist in proximity to the general election, but some may argue that doesn’t leave enough time for lesser known nominees to challenge incumbents.
- Lastly, provide for either tiered or ranked choice voting, or for runoffs, so that nominees must appeal more widely for votes to diminish the incentive to reflect only partisan and extreme positions.
It will be difficult to implement such reforms since, of course, the existing system works well for those currently in office, who have minimal incentive to experiment with innovation. Still, a vigorous pubic discussion about how we select candidates can help promote the changes we need to produce officeholders who embrace collaboration rather than confrontation as a way to seek office and serve voters.