Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kill the Primaries

As this campaign season draws to a close, I feel fatigued. It's not as bad as the marathon that was the 2004 presidential election, but it's still bad enough that I find myself looking back fondly to California's 2003 gubernatorial recall election.

The "recall" aspect of the affair was at best dubious (as was the restriction that Gray Davis could not appear on the ballot) but otherwise the campaign season was mercifully short (just 80 days), no primaries were needed, and it was the most fun, exciting, and democratic election in Californian history. (Also the most Democratic: more Democrats ran than members of any other party... and you've got to love an election process where Larry Flynt ends up the #2 ranked Democrat in the race.)

The ballot gave us the choice of 135 candidates from all walks of life--famous, infamous, and obscure--and if that weren't enough, there were 23 write-in candidates. People of all political viewpoints were able to participate fully in the process: anyone with the $3,500 fee and 65 signatures could join, and candidates from political parties could submit signatures in lieu of the filing fee (10,000 for major party candidates, 150 for recognized minor parties, or a pro-rated fee based on the fraction of that number obtained).

The problem of splitting the vote could be overcome by instituting preference voting (discussed elsewhere on the blog). In fact, preference voting might even turn the problem on its head: a pair of popular Democrats might draw more votes than just one. And the issue might not even arise. Consider that Arnold Schwarzenegger nearly won an outright majority in that election despite the presence of the popular conservative Tom McClintock--and remember that many suspect Arnold never could have survived the standard Republican primary.

In the end, primaries do little more than restrict our choices, entrench the reigning political party machines, and foster polarization. I say we kill the primaries and throw the general election wide open. (I now await denunciations of my naivete from the other Citizens.)


Anonymous said...

I hereby denounce your naivete when it comes to electoral systems.

It is not the primary that restricts your options it is the electoral system based on a winner take all. That system restricts the VIABLE options to two. You could eliminate the primary system entirely and that would still be the case.

Also, primaries are by the far the most democratic means for parties to select the candidates they endorse. And if we are to allow parties, we should allow those parties to chose their own candidates to endorse. For these reasons, if we allow parties we have to allow primaries.

Since we have to allow primaries if we allow parties (and because of his insistance in earlier comments and postings that politics should be "non-partisan"), I suspect Dr. Strangelove's fundamental objection is to parties themselves rather than the means by which they select their candidates.

But parties serve important purposes in Democracies. They facilitate cooperation between like minded individuals. They communicate information to voters about complicated issues. They allow those voters to hold groups of lawmakers accountable for policies they enact.

Most importantly from the "naivete" angle, parties have arisen in every legislature ever established and in every electoral system ever established. Functioning democracies all have parties. Parties, once established, must have some means of identifying the candidates they will endorse. In this country, it used to be they did this in the smoke-filled room. That is still the method used in most democracies. In the US parties use primaries.  

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

I would RBR that in effect, party candidates are still really chosen in smoke filled rooms.

The sophistication of candidate marketing and how much of the party machine they manage to get behind them narrows the playing field. In addition, as primaries are staggered across the country, you may loose viable candidates before all party members get to vote on them . . . thus the race to hold the first primary. That said, primaries, while not completely democratic are still the most democratic that you can get.

This reminds me that elections will change. With technology enabling more democratic forms expression, the candidates' tactics will have to change. Think about the effect of the blogosphere, the role playing universe like Second Life, social networking sites, etc. Candidates will have to master these mediums as well to market themselves. Let's take Second Life. It is a computer role playing game that has become so sophisticated that it has its own currency exchange and market. People are making up to $200K a year selling virtual things in their Second life roles and I understand that a Congressional Committee is looking into taxing Second Life earnings. Toyota figured out that it could sell a virtual Scion to those who "live" in second life as a way of getting their brand out. Why couldn't I adopt an alias and run for office in Second life, trying out my message before I run with it in real life? Or maybe I could hold a party primary in Second Life and then run exit polls to see if there may be a correlation in real life for my candidate. This type of thing is going to change how we vote. State party machines and primary election scheduling as we now know them could become things of the past.

// posted by Anonymous

Dr. Strangelove said...

Consider me denounced :-)

As for the "winner take all" system, perhaps RbR did not read my remark about preference voting? RbR is right that I do not like the "winner take all" system. But if my earlier remark was unclear, let me clarify: I would not advocate a move to wide-open elections unless we did so with preference voting.

As for the issue of political parties, RbR is somewhat wrong about my beliefs. I agree that political parties are necessary for the smooth functioning of a democracy. I wish voters had more than two choices however--and wide-open, preference-voting elections would foster this.

I also agree with RbR that political parties are unavoidable... As RbR himself notes, they have arisen under every conceivable parliamentary system--so surely they would continue to exist just fine in a primary-less world. Eliminating primaries would not destroy political parties. Have no fear.

RbR does make a very good point, however, that primaries are a democratic means of selecting which nominee a party should support. RbR says the alternative to primary elections is a return to the modern equivalent of smoke-filled rooms. But things have changed a lot since the primary system was first implemented. Running for office is becoming a process of self-nomination more and more.

Consider the California recall: no smoke-filled room decided Schwarzenegger should run, and no smoke-filled room could stop Bustamante from doing so.

Consider the Lieberman-Lamont Senate race. The primary battle bruised the Democratic party badly in Connecticut, and it did not work: the primary did not really unite the party behind a single candidate. The Democratic party have fared better if both Lieberman and Lamont were avowed Democrats in the general election with preference voting. (I anticipated this with my note about "a pair of popular Democrats" drawing more votes than just one.)

Consider Ohio, where the national Democratic party prevented Hackett from running against Sherrod in the primary. Seems like the smoke-filled room still works in the primary system too.

In other words, primaries are only a part of the decision-making process for parties, and while they may be the most democratic aspect of party politics, an open-wide system would be more democratic altogether... and might also be better for political parties these days.

Anonymous said...

I'd say the Lamont-Lieberman case is good example for a couple of reasons. First, it shows that an "insurgent" candidate can win a primary (contrary to Anonymous' assertion that primaries are essentially rigged by the party insiders). Tester (D) in Montana is another example of such a candidate.

Second, it raises another point about primaries. They aren't 100% about the general electorate and only recent perceptions have adopted them as a sort of general election semi-final resulting in the resentment many idependents have for their lack of producing candidates that appeal strongly to independents. Primaries are often about control of the party by different factions within that party. From that perspective, defeating Lieberman in the primary was a goal in itself and Lamont won a victory simply by forcing Lieberman off the Demcoratic ticket. That sent a signal to a lot of Lieberman wannabes that running as a D with a mostly R agenda has consequences.

Finally, the preference voting thing is great. And I prefer that system to our own even if I don't think it will ever happen here. But there are serious drawbacks to preference voting systems. Studies show that electoral systems that encourage INTRAparty competition (like primaries, plurality systems AND preference voting systems) are associated with higher levels of pork-barrel spending and certain types of corruption. They are also associated with nastier, more negative campaigns. The reason for this is that intraparty competition forces candidates with similar policy preferences to distinguish themselves from each other to win votes (or preference ordering positions). 

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

A caucus is perhaps better than a primary at choosing the candidate best suited to the electorate as a whole. That is because the caucus goers are more political and more likely to focus on that question, while primary voters may be voting just for the candidate they like best, not the one most likely to have broad appeal.

I agree that the goal of primaries - to make the system more inclusive - has largely failed. It requires so much money to run that it just replaces a smoke-filled room (where those with money make the calls) with internecine brawls (where they same thing happens), all between the same narrow set of candidates. Until the importance of money is reduced, this will not change. More free TV time is the easiest way to reduce the importance of money.

On the plus side, primaries engage and educate citizenry more, which is a good thing. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

Well, you could do what France does. Put all the candidated in a general election, then do multiple rounds of voting in a process of elimination, etc. Have run off elections. And then see how low voter turn out would drop.

In France, each party has a party caucus then all the chosen candidates run at the same time. That wouldn't work here either because we don't have as many parties as France does.  

// posted by USWest

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest: in a way, I am advocating what France does... but better. As you know, preference voting is sometimes named "instant runoff voting" because it allows the equivalent of multiple rounds of voting at once.

Just puttin' in my plug again for my pet voting reform :-)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Strangelove likes the Irish system (and I believe the San Francisco city council election) and US West likes France and L.A.'s mayoral election. Both are interesting alternatives. I wonder though how much of an alternative conservative Angelenos felt was provided by being able to chose between Hahn and Villaraigosa?

Both the French system and the Irish system are dominated by parties where candidate selection is handled more or less by the party leadership.

I think the public financing idea is the best way to open things up a bit. But unless we allowed for public financing even within intra party nomination processes, it would not keep the parties' nominees from dominating.

As for caucuses, I've actually participated in an off year caucus and here is how it worked: Me and three other people sat in a room and elected each other to various posts in the County party organization. I've heard stories about caucuses in Presidential election years and it's all about building coalitions of intraparty factions. Controlling the party and getting your first choice nominated is still the goal of the game, it's just not as formalized or transparent as in a primary. The wise and considered debates about who is the best candidate that LTG seems to expect are not the norm.  

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, I was not taking into account that in presidential election years, one is selecting delegates to a national convention rather than actually voting for a candidate per se.

Of course, I still suspect the caucus debates are better than voting. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

I don't have experience with Caucuses, but I do with non- profit boards, having just resigned from one. My experience is that most people are threatened by anyone really intelligent in the room and that they let personal considerations get in the way of real business. Or, if they have served for a long time, they resent new blood.

I have never sat on a jury, so I am not if that would something like a caucus in terms of its level of interaction with strangers. I dread such things because I think they end up being frustrating most of the time.

I mention this because RBR talked about 3 people in a room, sort of thing, electing themselves to things. And I have to ask myself if that is really practical in a state with such a huge population like say, California and if people are really serious and objective, or if they all act like righteous volunteers.

// posted by USwest

Anonymous said...

This was an off year election caucus. I should also add that the other three people in the room were all related. A couple had brought their 18 year old daughter to the caucus as a kind of civics lesson. She got elected pricinct boss because she had the most free time. I got put on platform committee.

In Presidential years I've heard the caucuses are much more raucuses. 

// posted by RBR

Anonymous said...

USWest is right that small volunteer organizations can really, really suck. I think the problem with primaries is that they come too early. Presidential campaigns should not begin  until, at least, March. Primaries or caucuses should be in June, just weeks before the conventions.

In off years, primaries should be in September.


// posted by LTG