Monday, July 11, 2016

Time for open general elections

1832 Democratic Convention in Baltimore

Consternation continues among Republicans heading into their convention.  There remains talk of unbinding the delegates on the first ballot which would open the floor to a host of candidates and denying Trump the nomination.  One figures at that point all hell would break loose and Trump would most likely run as an independent in the Fall.  Whatever the case, it points to the glaring shortcomings in the primary system, not just on the Republican but also the Democratic side.

The primary system didn't emerge until the late 19th century and didn't become a major factor in the nominating process until 1972.  It was an attempt to make the process more open, but it still feels like the nominee is foisted upon us by the respective party national committees.  Trump's victory in the primaries is rare, but it points more to the widespread dissatisfaction with the party power brokers than it does Trump's personal appeal.  To a large degree, the same could be said for Bernie Sanders' candidacy.

Americans want to be free to choose and this antiquated system doesn't allow it.  Candidates have to get big money backers or have a fortune of their own to mount a serious campaign.  There have been some relatively successful grass roots campaigns over the years, which is what Bernie tried to mount, but they have all fallen short.  Barack Obama had substantial support among the Democratic establishment in 2008, which allowed him to overcome Hillary Clinton's early lead.  Sanders was forced to work from a huge hole, due to Democratic superdelegates aligning themselves with Hillary, which he was unable to overcome.

We went through an arduous process that started back the Spring of 2015 when the first candidates declared themselves for President.  For nearly a year, these candidates vied for attention before the first primaries were held in February.  Then began the process of attrition, which saw most of the candidates drop out in the first month due to lack of support and funding.   All of this seems democratic on the surface, but underneath is an arcane process that had surprisingly little voter participation.

Iowa, which has a caucus system had only a 15 per cent voter turnout.  Little wonder since you actually have to participate in a selection process that goes well into the night, meaning only the most committed voters turn out.  Other caucus states saw much lower participation.  There was greater turnout in the primaries, especially the open primaries but even here the mean average was around 30 per cent, about half the turnout in a presidential general election.  This means less than a third of eligible American voters determine the party nominees.

You can blame this on general apathy, but with many of the primaries and caucuses closed to party members only, Independent voters are frozen out of the process.  Independents make up the largest voting block today, nearly 40 per cent.  In fact, Bernie Sanders is still registered as an Independent, but was able to get on Democratic ballots in closed state primaries because he caucused with the Democrats in the Senate.  Trump has changed his political affiliation at least five times, most recently becoming Republican in 2008.

So, why not just do away with these caucuses and primaries all together and have an open general election where any candidate, regardless of his or her political affiliation, can run for President if he or she can get enough names on a petition to register for the state ballots?  This was the way it was done originally.  The current form of party politics didn't emerge until the 1832 election when the Democrats put up Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren as their party ticket.  The National Republicans countered with Henry Clay and John Sergeant.  Two other parties were also represented.

Before 1832, Candidates might affiliate themselves with a party, but these political parties were in flux and didn't hold conventions.  General elections were open and saw a wide variety of candidates, the most hotly contested being 1824, which had to be decided in Congress.  I suppose this is what led to political parties taking greater control of the process.

General elections are still open, but it is pretty hard for an independent or other party candidate to mount much of a challenge, as so much time and money has been spent on the Republican and Democratic primaries that it is difficult for an independent candidate to be heard.  This may change this year as there is such widespread dissatisfaction that Gary Johnson is polling as high as 11 per cent, which is very good for an independent candidate this far out of the general election.  He may have enough support to qualify himself for the national debates in early autumn. This hasn't been seen since Ross Perot ran for President in 1992.

Doing away with the primary system would not only open the door for independent candidates but allow more Republicans and Democrats to enter the race.  Of course, this risks a battle royale like we saw in the Republican primaries, but the top two, or even three, contenders could then face each other in a run-off election, which would be much more fair and much less costly than this bloated primary system.  We could also get rid of the electoral college, so this becomes a truly national election, rather than the state-by-state process we currently have.

None of this is likely to happen as there are too many vested interests in the current system.  Small states are also not likely to give up their electoral votes out of fear their voices won't be heard in a national election, which was the reason for the electoral college in the first place.  More likely we will see a tweaking of the system in an attempt to be more representative.  The Democrats will do away with their superdelegates and the Republicans will do away with their winner-take-all primaries, which occur in many states.  Who knows maybe even the electoral college will be distributed on a proportional basis?  One small step at a time, as they say, provided of course we don't end up with a fascist as president.

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