The direct primary was a democratic reform instituted at the turn of the twentieth century so that the voters could choose their candidates and not be faced with choices in the election made in back rooms by party bosses. The idea worked well as long as voters paid attention and still works in the case of high visibility contests e.g. President (the Obama/Clinton primaries) or Governors and Senators and Congressmen. But in many elections it has become simply another drag on the political system that in fact may be eroding popular belief in and support for the democratic system.
Yesterday, May 21 was Primary Day in Pennsylvania. There was a statewide contest for Superior Court and many county and municipal as well as school district contests. The turnout of registered Democrats in my county of Delaware was 9%; in my borough of Folcroft 7%. One can no longer make the argument that 10% or less of the registered party voters are measurably more democratic than having nominees chosen by party conventions (delegates often being chosen by the voters).
I believe that my state of Pennsylvania has a number of election law provisions that far from encouraging participation (which they were intended to do) actually help keep down the interest. There are a number of practices used in other states that I believe might increase the popular participation in primaries in our state.
First would be to adopt the Oregon system of voting by mail - including fax and online and use that method of voting in primaries, particularly those in odd numbered years which have the lowest turnout.
Second would be to do away with cross-filing, which we now have in judicial and school director races. Instead of fostering bipartisanship in these contests it has created a system where money can now lock up both nominations and thereby end any choice in the general election.
Third would be to hold the primary after Labor Day with the general election in November. (This is done in many states including New York). Interest is greater and petitioning and campaigning is done in the summer not the winter months.
Ballot access is important but allowing anyone with ten signatures to get on a local ballot hasn’t encouraged participation it has simply created a class of candidates who have no organization and little popular support so of course no turnout on primary day. Let the political parties hold conventions, with requirements that assure popular voice in who attends, and then let any candidate who opposes the choice of the party get substantial signatures e.g. 5% of the party voters in the district to show that there is interest and organization behind the primary effort
Another reform would be to clear up the cluttered ballot by providing that when only one candidate is nominated or petitioned for a position (or the minimum number of candidates in a group contest) they are declared nominated and there is no need for a primary unless a write-in candidate files a petition again with some signature requirement of substance.
Reduce the number of positions that need to be filled by providing for the appointment by the parties of the election inspectors (rather than their nomination and election) two per precinct per party with rotation as to Judge of Elections (e.g. odd number precincts a Democrat inspector as Judge of Elections and even number precincts a Republican Judge of Elections). This would also have the added benefit of allowing the county board of elections to require the party to replace anyone who fails to attend training classes or messes up on voting day.
If we are save our democracy we need to streamline it and make it relevant to the culture of the twenty first century: elect offices that voters can relate to; use modern means of communication (e.g. mail, online, faxes) to allow voters to register and to cast their votes. We can bemoan the lack of interest by the people in all these elections and we can insist that only those who show interest should be enabled to participate. Or, we can recognize the changes in our culture that reduce participation in collective group activities and adjust our democratic system accordingly so that we retain democracy as the means by which our people govern themselves. Those who died in the wars since 1776 did so that their descendants and future generation would be free and enjoy liberty and equality. They didn’t fight for a particular method of voting. And since that Revolution there have been numerous changes in the way and when we vote and what we vote for. The changes at the turn of the twentieth century are no more sacred than the practices they changed were. To save democracy we may have to simplify and modernize and adjust to the convenience of the voter.
22 May 2013