Wednesday, April 20, 2016

In defense of closed primaries

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Texas Democratic primary, and I stand by that vote.  I'm in substantial agreement with him on most issues.  I continue to believe that he's the right person to be the 45th President.

But it looks today like that's not to be.  It looks very much like there have been some shenanigans, especially in Arizona and New York.  Unlike many of my fellow Bernie supporters, however, I don't think those shenanigans have been the product of some concerted* effort to install Hillary Clinton as the nominee through vote suppression and fraud.  Rather, it can be attributed mostly to inertia (in New York, which has absurd rules for primary voting) and racist malevolence (in Arizona, where substantial Republican majorities in elected office are working hard to keep casual voters and racial minorities from casting ballots).  Hillary isn't to blame for either of those factors.  As the frontrunner, and until voting actually began, the presumptive nominee, she was merely the beneficiary.

* - N.B. While many people use the term "concerted" to mean "vigorous" or "strong," it actually means "joint," as in "in concert," in that a "concerted effort" means a group of people working together toward a common goal or purpose.

What caught Bernie out in New York was something that's largely beyond his control.  To vote in a partisan primary, New York requires you to be a registered member of that party for six months before the election.  That means that unless you were a registered Democrat in October 2015, you were excluded from voting in yesterday's Democratic primary.  What makes that absurd is that it's very difficult to get new voters engaged enough, six months in advance of an election, to organize any significant number of them to do what's needed to vote.  That's just human nature, and the political powers in New York, recognizing that, simply keep the rules that way to keep voting totals low.

While I think that's ludicrous and anti-democratic (small d), you will not hear me criticizing the closed primary system.

Historically, although their relative numbers have fluctuated, party registrations have hovered around the following:  35% Democratic, 30% Republican, 35% independent or third-party.  The partisan numbers tend to go down in times of hyperpartisanship and up at other times.  Lately it has been fashionable to declare yourself an "independent," on some theory that being a partisan means being a mind-numb robot.  In the last few years, lots of people have decided to "stick it to the Man" by changing their voter registrations to independent or to some third party (commonly Libertarian or Green).

I'll say it now:  Unless you are committed to building a political party from the ground up, becoming a registered member of one of these microparties is ridiculous and foolish.  (I also happen to think that trying to build a political party from the ground up is also ridiculous and foolish.)

You're not sticking it to the Man.  The Man doesn't care what your party registration is.  Ultimately, what matters is how you vote in November, and your party affiliation means nothing in November.

But what you are doing is making it much more difficult for you to have a say in who the major parties' nominees are, at least in states with closed primaries.

And I think that states should have closed primaries.  After all, the purpose of a primary election is for members of a party to choose the person who appears on their line in the general election, not to have a "first cut" of candidates.

Like it or not, we have a system in which the two major parties dominate elections.  Elected independents—Bernie notwithstanding—are rare.  Elected microparty candidates are even rarer.  The reason for this is simple:  It's very, very difficult to organize to win elections.  Parties provide continuity and an apparatus of support for their candidates.

We also have a binary system because the American people are largely binary in their approach to politics.  If you forget about the party labels and just ask people their opinions on the broad topics around which our political system is organized, something like 95% of Americans will be at least 75% aligned with the views of one major party or the other.  In fact, the broad majority of self-described independents tend to align with the Democrats on the issues.  Of course, we don't vote on issues (usually); we vote on candidates.  It's certainly true that people who aren't sufficiently engaged with the political process to register with the party they align with politically are going to vote for candidates they don't align with, for reasons of personality (either in favor of the candidate they vote for or against the candidate they don't vote for).

But I don't think it's too much to ask that you register as a Democrat to be able to vote in the Democratic primary.  If you can't bothered to declare yourself a Democrat, why should you have any say in determining the Democratic nominee for any particular office?  If you want to have a say in the party's nomination process, join the party!  It's free, and if you don't like our candidate in November, feel free to vote for the other guy.  We'll never know, unless you say so.

Where New York errs is in making it so difficult to get qualified to vote in a partisan primary.  If you're going to hold an election on April 19, a reasonable cutoff for voter and party registration is March 20, 30 days before.  Not October.  (New York also errs by requiring you to cast your ballot in your precinct on Election Day; it should permit no-excuse early voting, and it should make voting centers available for that purpose.  I've been pleasantly surprised by the approach taken by Collin County, Texas, where I live.  You can vote in any voting center in the county, either on Election Day or for about two weeks before.  They even provide up-to-the-minute statuses for each voting center so you can choose one with short lines.  They also have plenty of voting centers, unlike Maricopa County, Arizona, which implemented such a plan but slashed the number of centers available by two-thirds, which resulted in long lines earlier this year.)

I'm all in favor of getting casual voters and independents into the electoral process, but to the extent they are going to influence my party's primary elections, I want them to be members of my party. 

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