by Robert Herold
First, an acknowledgment: I think primaries are a bad idea, at least those that don't require party membership (or, at the very least, registration) as a condition of voting. Of the two forms of primary election that don't require registration, one (called the blanket primary) even allows for spontaneous crossover voting. The voter can help nominate a Republican to run for governor, a Democrat to run for lt. governor, a Republican to run for attorney general and so on. Open primaries, the most popular of the three forms, don't require prior party registration but do require that the voter identify which party's ballot he or she wants.
Washington has long been one of never more than three states with a blanket primary, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last month. Now we have the chance to right our ship of state, which has veered away from true representative democracy as political parties have lost their influence. Much of the blame here can be laid at the doorstep of the blanket primary, which has undermined the power of the political parties.
We like to think of our primary as the bedrock of our so-called "fierce political independence." Hogwash. More to the point, it has been the bedrock of political irresponsibility masked by a brand of pseudo-citizenship that begins and ends with the casting of a vote on primary day.
Primaries were the invention of late-19th century reformers who sought to democratize the electoral process by taking the nominating power away from party leadership, otherwise known as bosses. Undergirding the parties in some states were very large economic interest groups. They called the tune, the party leadership danced and the party regulars applauded.
The Southern Pacific Railroad, for example, at one time controlled all but a handful of votes in the California legislature. It is not by some accident that political reform swept through California (and, for that matter, seems to still be sweeping).
Unfortunately, however, the reformers threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Political parties, you see, served a very necessary function. They organized to run slates of candidates who pledged to work as a group to run government should they be elected. Along the way, parties performed other valuable services. They mediated social and political disputes. They identified, selected and socialized leadership. And, because America has never known proportional representation, parties worked as mediating institutions to find common ground in the interest of maintaining a majority in the various legislative bodies.
Primaries were more than an antidote, they represented an attack on the very institution known as a political party.
The result has often been that irresponsible voters go to the polls, help nominate whoever happens to tickle their fancy. Then, once in office, standing alone without the support of a party, the new office holder is held accountable for running a government that could only be run through an organized effort. It's a losing prospect to be sure.
In the end, the voter, once again, expresses frustration over failure of government to deliver on its promises, and ducks into a voting booth long enough to help nominate the next candidate who has no party support.
We can cite any number of instances where such a candidate has been nominated. One stands out: Does anyone think that rank and file Democrats would ever have nominated Dixie Lee Ray to run for Governor?
The result of this flawed process has been failed government led by politically unattached amateurs who make big promises and then deliver little. But, then, why should we expect otherwise? Government is, after all, a complex business that requires a team effort, and primaries, by design, produce something else.
But now the Supreme Court has struck down the blanket primary. Whether open and closed primaries will past muster with the Court remains to be seen, but the guess is that they will, if for no other reason than the impact on the American voting psyche. As only two states have the blanket primary, the impact is easier to take. But it could be argued that the "freedom of association" test that the Court applied in rejecting the blanket primary could also apply to the closed primary (that requires prior party registration) and perhaps even the open primary (that requires only the choice to vote in a single party's primary).
The opportunity for our state, which now must choose a new primary system, is the renewal of political parties. Lacking control over even their own nominees, political parties here are weak, disorganized and poorly attended. Frankly, my guess is that the Republican state convention (and Washington continues to compliment its primaries with conventions) far more closely reflected general party sentiment regarding Indian tribes than anyone now wants to admit. The convention voted to end sovereignty for the tribes. Now an embarrassed leadership, chastened by the national party's condemnations and worried about defections in the more liberal voting public, is backing and filling. Abolish tribal sovereignty? No, no. Working to the beginning from the ending, they now tell us that all the party wanted to do was end sovereignty where a republican form of government wasn't guaranteed (like in all the tribes).
But, then, who cares? Which is why the convention acted so badly in the first place. The delegates knew that few would care, or even if they did, so what? In the end, the party wouldn't matter in the least. Which is what the leadership understands. And the Republican Party pehaps has the most to regain, as it has fielded futile candidates like Ellen Craswell and Linda Smith. Now the party's elected faithful aren't even going to try to field a candidate for governor, instead ceding the duty without quarrel to a talk radio host, John Carlson.
So the idea has necessarily become to wholesale candidates (even those you might not like all that much). Marketing, that's the ticket. Newsman Walter Cronkite recently commented that he had been asked to run for political office several times in his career, and he was always irritated that those who sought him out talked about how easy he would be to get elected. Never, he said, did they ask what he stood for on the issues.
And this is all the point. Wouldn't representative democracy be better served by a process that held party members accountable to a broader public, and would party members act more responsibly if their actions and ideology held some weight? After all, it will be these same party members who will be out and about doing all the work come campaign season.
A healthier party system remains a long shot. For too long we have confused our political version of a beauty contest with responsible governance. At least, thanks to the Supreme Court, we have a chance to make party government work. Just a chance.