Tennessee’s Primary Idea Shows the Right Direction

A highly publicized bill in Tennessee has drawn a lot of comment nationwide over its attempt to eliminate primary elections for Senate seats. Instead the party caucuses State Legislature would pick the candidates. Understandably, it’s drawn the ire of people claiming it’s ‘anti-democratic’, and has, for now, been shelved.

However, it’s not the worst idea of them. Frankly, when I first got involved with politics, the primary election was one of the biggest surprises of the lot. A publicly funded election to decide who a political party would put up for election; that just doesn’t seem right I thought. These people are running a public campaign to elect them, not to office, but for the chance to run for office? That’s ridiculous.

2011/2012 highlighted this issue more than anything else. Pretty much everyone was sick and tired of the primary contest in the US for the 2012 Republican Party nomination. It started in early 2011, and went on until March/April 2012, with candidates dropping out as they ran out of money or couldn’t sustain interest. Various states were bombarded with advertising campaigns, opinion channels were falling over themselves to host ‘debates’ that were light on issues but heavy on faux-patriotism, and extremism.

Through it though two things stand out:

  1. Parties are in control of who can run much of the time
  2. In many states, primaries are closed, meaning public participation is limited to one or the other (or sometimes neither) despite paying for both).

The basic question is one of fairness to the public. You have some extremely wealthy candidates and campaigns vying for the spot to contest an election on behalf of the party. Why is the public paying for this?

Some states have a two-level system, as described in this Texas document . As you can see small parties handle things themselves, but ‘big’ parties get the benefit of having their candidate selection paid for. In fact, the candidates have to pay the party for the privilege of taking part in this publicly funded election.

Isn’t it wonderful when democracy is usurped by capitalism? Candidates paying the party to get on the primary election ballot, but the cost of that election borne by the taxpayer. Sweet deal for some, and that’s not you or me.

And often the party can then decide who can get onto that ballot, neatly demonstrated in 2008 when Stephen Colbert attempted to get on the Presidential Primary ballot in South Carolina. declining to pay the $35,000 fee the Republican party wanted, he paid the $2500 the Democratic party required. Despite meeting all their stipulations, he was denied a place on their ballot by the state party. It’s a publicly funded election, but only if you get approval from the gatekeepers of the party.

It’s obvious why it’s that way. A ‘public election’ is an excuse to appeal for voters, and to be ‘newsworthy’, and thus get coverage of issues, candidates and policy ideas. It’s preliminary campaigning for the real election, subsidised by the taxpayer and news media, and outsourcing this cost to the public is just good business sense… for the party.

Now if you were to suggest that the party were to pay for the cost of the primary elections, or that they were to be billed afterwards, would they complain? Sure they would. And the elections would suddenly become a whole lot more low-key.

The thing is we don’t care about the small party candidates, precisely because the selection of them is a private party matter. There’s no news organisations going to cover this closed door meeting, or hype it up as with the likes of “Super Tuesday”.

There is another side to things as well. The Republican Party has recently announced that it’s got to stop being the ‘stupid party’, and admitted it has a branding problem. But if they can keep pointing to their candidates and making it seem like a ‘choice’ then a lot of their bad choices can be pushed onto the voters. Selecting their own candidates can make the two major parties more accountable to the party faithful, and to the candidates themselves.

Some outlets have complained about the Tennessee law saying it’s a bad idea. Charlie Cook at the National Journal says “…with cynicism about government increasing, is this really a good time to cut voters out of the process?” He echos wider sentiment that somehow only the public is qualified to select who can represent a party (as long as it’s one of the main two).

He also misses that the cynicism about quality is focused on the main party candidates, while cynicism about minor party candidates is generally about their ability to be elected; both of these can be attributed to the public-funded primary system which promotes outspoken column-inch generating candidates over competence, and is an excuse to solicit funds and spend them.

This can’t be overlooked either. A private candidate selection process would mean that no-one would know who the candidates are until the convention. Sure things could be leaked earlier, but until the start of the selection process at least, early in the election-year, the front-runners aren’t even certain. Thus candidates are going to be hesitant to campaign, and spend funds to convince voters ‘they’re the one’, when all but one will never even see a ballot, unless they’re unopposed for their party’s nomination. It’ll certainly put an end to the presidential bid campaigning that starts soon after the mid-term elections are finished, and which everyone is sick of a year before the election itself.

Sure the primaries make some states feel important, like New Hampshire, but the vast distortion the whole system has brought to US politics, and the candidates it encourages (frankly, “the cream of the crap”) doesn’t help, nor does the incessant campaigning which means people already holding elected office are not doing the job they’re being paid to do, and not representing who they’re supposed to represent.

If the US wants to reform politics, make it fairer, more equitable, and with better candidates and a better return for the public, then the best thing for everyone to do, is to scrap primaries, and put them where they belong, back inside their party.

After all, that’s what we at the Pirate Party of Georgia have to do when we provide a candidate, not mooch off the taxpayer.

This article was crossposted with the Pirate Party of Georgia