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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Primary Election Reform

America is in a situation of political division which is unprecedented in my lifetime.  Our government processes are paralyzed by partisanship.  The tone of political rhetoric in the media and in public life has reached levels of ugliness that I never before experienced.  Politicians in office increasingly represent the extremes of our political spectrum rather than the middle.  The presidential candidates chosen by both political parties are viewed unfavorably by a majority of the public.

We need to reform the process by which we winnow the field of potential candidates to nominees who participate in the general election.  Our political parties administer these processes, with party rules that are wildly inconsistent and unfair.  It is time for the government to take control of these processes, and to make changes in the interest of better government and a healthier society.

 A simple change to our election processes would address many of these problems.  If we replace our system of closed party primary elections and caucuses with an open general primary, it would force candidates to seek support from the middle of the political spectrum, rather than the extremes.  I believe this would set the country on the course of solving our problems.  

Primary Election Reform
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are poised to compete for the Presidency of the United States as candidates of America’s major political parties.  The candidates will set a record as the most detested presidential candidates for as long as public opinion has been recorded.  It is an indication of the increasing polarization of American society, and an indication that our political system is broken.
How did we come to be in this situation in a democracy, where people choose the very candidates that they dislike?  The problem is in our system of winnowing the field of candidates through primary elections and party caucuses.

Our system of primary elections is partly to blame for our political dysfunction and gridlock.  The system divides the electorate into partisan camps.  Each camp tends to select a candidate who epitomizes the most partisan views of that camp.   The process produces a government which lurches from extreme to extreme at the highest levels, and a government which is locked in acrimonious and dysfunctional gridlock at lower levels.  We have created a government in which the willingness to compromise is seen as a fatal flaw.  The judicial system, which is the strongest stabilizing force in American government, has likewise become a battleground of ideology.   Political discourse has become increasing bitter over the past 25 years, and political conflicts increasingly violent. 
The major political parties, Democratic and Republican, are essentially private clubs, who presently dominate the processes of winnowing candidates for all political offices.  The parties dictate the processes of winnowing the pool of candidates in a mind-numbing morass of differing primary election and caucuses, with different rules in every state. (The process is detailed at the end of this article for readers unfamiliar with the American system).   The process rewards corruption, and allows established political powers and wealthy political donors to strongly influence the selection of the party candidates.  It is in the interest of the nation to remove that power from the parties, and institute primary elections which are fair and equal for all citizens.

Primary election processes must be reformed.  A reformed process of winnowing the field of candidates would necessarily force candidates to compete for the middle of the political spectrum.  Politically extreme candidates would be eliminated from contention in general elections.   Reforming our primaries would improve the policies that govern the nation and allow the smooth functioning of government.

Reform Proposal – Simultaneous Open Primaries and Negative Votes
Winnowing the slate of candidates for office is far too important to be left to the whims of political parties.  There is ample justification in the Constitution to overturn our current system, and establish a new system, which will provide of equal rights to all citizens in the selection of our political candidates. 

The solution to our problem is remarkably simple.  We must establish general primary elections, to be held simultaneously in all states.  Candidates would compete for votes from all citizens, decreasing our tendency to elect extremists from the ends of the political spectrum.   Candidates would be less bound by party orthodoxy, and able to express a range of opinions, which would be healthy for our general political discourse.  The top two candidates in the general primary would compete in the general election, eliminating the problem of a three-way race, in which two candidates with similar views split a majority vote, allowing a candidate supported by a minority to win an election.  The process should be applied at every level, from President to mayor of the smallest hamlet.

I would propose a further variant.  The power to say “NO” is an important element of decision-making, embodied in the President’s veto power over actions of Congress, and in Congress’ power, with a super-majority, to override the President’s decisions.   That power should also be given to the voters.  I would suggest, that in any primary election with more than three candidates, each citizen should be given three votes: two positive votes, and one negative vote.   In a field of many candidates, such as we had in this Presidential cycle, the “NO” votes would eliminate extreme and unpopular candidates.  I think a system which gives citizens a veto would produce a government more accurately of the people, by the people, and for the people. 

When candidates compete in an open primary, by necessity, they must learn to represent all of the people.  Success will depend on winning over the middle of the political spectrum, rather than the extremes.   Candidates will be empowered to express views on some issues which are outside of their party orthodoxy, and they will be empowered to compromise with their political opposition
We are at a political crossroads in America.  We are on the edge of collapse of the two-party system which has generally governed our country since its inception, and in the current form which has existed for over a century.   We have the opportunity now to make it better, and we may never have another chance.

The following section is added for readers unfamiliar with the American system of Primary Elections.

The American System of Primary Elections and Caucuses
In general, America has a two-party political system.  In the American system, candidates for political office compete for nomination by the political party of their affiliation.  The candidates chosen for nomination then compete in a general election against the candidate of the other major party.  Occasionally, there are candidates from minor political parties, or independent candidates, but these are rarely significant in the general election.  

Each party sets its own rules for winnowing the field of candidates to determine a nominee, for both national and local offices.  In fact, the parties set different rules in each state, resulting in a patchwork of irregular processes depending upon location.  

In most states, the nominee is selected by the result of a primary election.  In some states, the primary is restricted to only party members; in some states the primary is open to independent voters; in some states open to all voters.  Some states employ another variant.  Instead of an election, the nominee is selected through local meetings termed caucuses.  The caucuses require several hours of time.  Caucuses are attended by only about 5 percent of the population.  By comparison, about 35 to 40 percent of the population participate in primary elections. 

Primary elections are held according to an arbitrary schedule, at various times in various states.  The process gives the states with early voting a disproportionate influence on results, by directing additional media attention and political donations to the winners of the early contests.  Those early results tend to reflect the parochial interests of those states, rather than the broader interests of the nation. 

The Republican Party (ironically) has a more ‘democratic’ system than the Democratic Party.  Republicans have given more power directly to the voters in the system of primary elections.  Essentially all of the Republican delegates are chosen by primary election results, and those delegates are bound to vote according to primary election results on the first ballot at the party convention.  The Democratic Party allocates about one-eighth of the delegates to existing party officials and office-holders. 

The parties also have processes which give considerable power to established political interests.  Both parties have “rules committees” which are able to change the rules for nomination, even after the conclusion of all primary voting.

In the current presidential election cycle, Donald Trump prevailed over the established powers of the Republican party, riding a wave of populist rage and racist rhetoric to overwhelm the establishment candidates.  In the Democratic Party, the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton called upon a deep well of political obligations owed to her husband, Bill Clinton, from his eight-year presidency.  Even so, she narrowly prevailed against a more articulate and extreme candidate from the left side of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders.   Neither partisan racist mob-rule, nor entrenched political dynasties serve our country well.