The Blanket Primary, Let it Die

by Robert Herold

Federal judge Franklin Burgess has sustained, for now, the "blanket primary," Washington State's 60-year-old process of nominating candidates for office wherein voters can cross party lines with impunity. His opinion was hailed by Secretary of State Sam Reed. "The blanket primary," said Reed, "has worked in our state for more than 60 years. This ruling sends a clear message that in Washington State, the primary belongs to the people."

The Seattle Times in its responding editorial echoed Reed's praise for the judge's decision: "Voters rightly and fervently believe the primary election belongs to them." Then, in an article on the subject, the paper came back to the same theme, that with this decision the "fiercely independent" Washington State voter had been once again vindicated and given protection from those conniving party bosses who apparently seek to squelch democracy in action.

"...belongs to the people?"

"Voters rightly and fervently believe...?"

"...fiercely independent?"

Balderdash. Euphemisms all.

The primary doesn't belong to the people. Largely because of the blanket primary system, the real owners of the primary process are the political wholesalers, otherwise known as special interests.

Consider use of the word "fervently." Have you ever checked the voter turnout in a typical primary?

As for the old standby term, "fiercely independent," substitute the term "fiercely irresponsible." The typical voters seems to think like this: "I'll help a party, any party (it doesn't matter) nominate a candidate, any candidate (it doesn't matter), then I'll go about my business while those bad guys known as the party regulars try to elect someone who they may not even want to run. But by God, I did my part.

In its case before the district court, the parties argued that the blanket primary denies them their right of free association. They are right, of course. But this is not the real issue. Nor can they argue that parties are extralegal, even though they are. The Supreme Court decided against that argument years ago when it struck down all-white primaries in the South. Back then the parties -- well, there was only one party, the Democratic Party -- could not claim freedom of association if by so doing they had only the intent to exclude Blacks from participating in the only electoral process that mattered, the Democratic Party Primary. (He who won the primary in the old "Solid South" won the election.)

I suggest that the real issue, missed by the Court is embedded in Secretary of State Reed's statement: "The blanket primary has worked in our state for more than 60 years.'"


What does he mean? Worked, as in, "By golly, we held every one of those primaries we scheduled"? Worked, as in, "We have sure made a lot of voters feel good"?

If we're talking here about effective government, the system hasn't worked at all -- not if by "worked" we mean predictable, responsible and effective government.

No one has improved on what the scholar E. E. Schattschneider wrote some 40 odd years ago on the subject. In his book Party Government, he begins with a defense of strong parties: "The rise of political parties," he affirms, "is indubitably one of the principal distinguishing marks of modern government. The parties, in fact, have played a major role as makers of governments, more especially they have been the makers of democratic government... [T]his volume is devoted to the thesis that the political parties created democracy and that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties. As a matter of fact, the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime."

Schattschneider argues that the contribution of parties has been great, even though to operate in large measure extralegally and have been under a siege waged by reformers for more than a century. I refer to the ever-growing legion of moralizers who wave banners with terms such as "fiercely independent" and "fervently" and "belonging to the people." Less than banners, they are political holograms that serve to give off the momentary effect of a narcotic which makes one actually feel that he or she is being a good citizen. All the waving is usually accompanied by the favorite chant of the reformer: "Vote for the Man, Not the Party."


Of course, once the election -- that is, the final election -- is held, our legion of Mr. Smiths Going to Washington (or Olympia, or wherever) show up to represent all those fiercely independent people. And, then what? Well, all these politically undefined representatives -- not to be confused with politicians, no indeed, they wouldn't want to bear that nasty label -- want to do good things for good people.

But they haven't a clue as to how to go about doing it.

"If democracy means anything at all," writes Schattschneider, "it means that the majority has the right to organize for the purpose of taking over the government."

The operative word is "organize."

By supporting the blanket primary, Judge Burgess refuses to grant parties the power to control their own nominating processes, thus assuring that they will continue to struggle against almost insurmountable odds to provide effective organization.

Through this decision, even more than it fails the principle of freedom of association, the court fails everyone's right to representative democracy by means of party government.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.