Imagine there’s no party on government ballots; it’s easy if you can (with apologies to Lennon).
Right now in Colorado and elsewhere in the nation, we are debating whether to use a caucus system (based on local meetings and assemblies) or a primary system (based on mailed ballots) to assign Republicans and Democrats to general-election ballots for various government offices. (Right now in Colorado we use a combination of systems for many offices, and we use a caucus system to select national delegates to the Republican national convention. By separate laws, third parties assign candidates at their conventions.)
Colorado’s caucus system exploded in controversy after Ted Cruz won all of the state’s delegates at the April 9 Republican state convention. Although Colorado Republicans elected delegates to the national convention exactly the same way as last time, Donald Trump played on widespread confusion about a cancelled, non-binding preference poll at caucus to claim that the system is “rigged” and that it “disenfranchised” people.
Having participated in the Republican caucus system, I saw how grass-roots it really is—it begins with neighborhood meetings where local Republicans get together to discuss politics, conduct party business, and select delegates to various assemblies. I think there’s a great deal of value to the caucus system that isn’t obvious to people who don’t participate in it (and even to some who do). That said, I also had some sympathy with arguments for moving to a primary system closed to party voters that splits delegates proportionally.
But then I started thinking, why is government involved in political parties in the first place? When government places a candidate’s party affiliation on a ballot, it thereby sanctions and helps to entrench today’s two major parties. And primary elections are funded by taxpayers. How is it moral to force people who disapprove of the parties (or of voting generally) to pay for the process of selecting Republican and Democratic candidates for the general ballot? Answer: It isn’t.
What got me thinking along these lines was a remark by the great Colorado political analyst Peter Blake, who reminds us, “Parties, as the Supreme Court has affirmed numerous times, are private organizations.”
But are they really? When government lists parties on ballots and pays for systems of selecting a party’s candidates, political parties in reality are not purely private; they are instead quasi-governmental entities. And that ambiguous status generates all kinds of problems.
The reason that Trump’s claims of “disenfranchisement” seem plausible to many people is that many people see today’s two major parties as de facto arms of the government. If the Republican Party is part of the government, then it makes sense that it should follow “enfranchisement” rules appropriate to government.
On the other hand, if the Republican Party is truly a private organization, then it makes sense for the party to select candidates in a way best suited to the party’s goals (and I think a caucus system is best for that). For comparison, if you join the Catholic Church, you don’t think you’re “disenfranchised” because you don’t get to vote directly for the next Pope. You just understand that the church has a longstanding (and very elitist) selection process for that.
By way of background, this is the first year that I participated in the Republican caucus system. Before registering Republican late last year, I was an unaffiliated voter for many years. Before that, I was very active in the Libertarian Party of Colorado; I even ran for state representative once. At the time, I appreciated the easy access that Libertarians had to the ballot. Now I think it’s absurdly easy for third parties to place candidates on the ballot relative to the major parties and to independent candidates. All third parties have to do in Colorado is hold a convention where members of the party select candidates to appear on the ballot. So I’ve been aware of some of the oddities of Colorado’s candidate selection process for some time.
We Coloradans had a bizarre election for governor in 2010 that illustrates some of the problems with existing election laws. That year, Tom Tancredo, formerly a Republican member of Congress, ran with the American Constitution Party. He did so well that his new party gained “major party” status—which was quite ridiculous.
Given the many problems of government involvement in political parties, here is what I now propose: Government should set simple rules for a candidate to get on the general-election ballot (presumably based on petition requirements); these rules should apply the same to everyone, regardless of party; and government should not be involved with promoting a party or selecting its candidates in any way.
Let me spin a hypothetical case to make clear what I’m talking about. Let’s say government at all levels requires that petitions for candidates be submitted by September 1 of an election year. Anyone may get on the ballot, without party affiliation listed, by meeting the petition requirements. A political party, as a truly private organization, may select its favored candidates however it wants. Indeed, any private organization could select its favored candidates however it wants.
Let’s say Alan Albertson, Barty Bernardo, and Chad Cox want to run as Republicans for U.S. Senate. They would join the Republican Party, and that party would institute a selection mechanism (such as a caucus and convention) to pick its candidate. Let’s say Alan Albertson wins the Republican contest. Then Alan would get the petitions to be on the general-election ballot. But couldn’t Barty and Chad also petition onto the ballot? Yes, they could. Presumably, the Republican Party in that scenario would have an honor system by which candidates pledged to petition onto the ballot only if they became their party’s official designee.
Let’s say that Barty promises not to petition onto the ballot if the Republicans consider backing him and he loses, but that he’s a lying bastard. Barty loses the Republican contest, then petitions onto the ballot anyway. This would simply be none of the government’s business. Voters could choose whether to sign petitions placing Barty on the ballot and whether to vote for Barty in the general election.
So where do parties come in, then, if they are not listed on the ballot for the general election? Presumably, parties would simply distribute and publicize slates of their candidates. For example, the Republican Party would send out a list of its selected candidates for the various offices in contention. A voter could then vote according to the Republican Party’s slate—or not.
In short, what I am calling for is the separation of party and state. I think it makes no more sense for government to list “Republican” on a general-election ballot than it does for government to list “Catholic” or “Mormon” on a ballot. Tracking a person’s private affiliations is simply none of the government’s legitimate business.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that the system I describe is close to how politics actually was done long ago, but I don’t know that history. (That would make an interesting topic for a future article.)
Another detail: I very much support approval voting to handle elections in which more than two candidates run. Approval voting basically means that voters can vote for as many candidates as they want. So if two similar candidates appear on the ballot, voters could select both, thereby reducing the chance of splitting their votes and electing a less-popular candidate. The candidate with the most votes overall wins. (Ranked voting achieves a similar outcome, but it’s harder to implement.)
Although I very much enjoyed the Republican caucus process this year, something about the way that candidates end up on a general-election ballot has been bothering me. Now I think I know what it is—the inappropriate collusion of government and political parties. I think my proposal—to separate political parties from government—is the only morally and practically defensible move.
April 18 Update: Yesterday I posted the following remarks to Facebook; they reflect my latest thinking about caucuses, primaries, and the problems with government collusion with parties:
Thank you to those who have helped me clarify my thinking about these issues. Again, I think the fundamental is that government ought not collude with political parties, and such collusion is the key problem in this context.
Unfortunately, it looks likely that government soon will force the political parties to allow non-members to help select (some of) their candidates, by my lights the worst possible outcome and a grotesque violation of rights of association (which Republicans seem to occasionally defend).
In the context of political parties restored as (fully) private organizations, should they use a caucus or a primary system? It occurred to me that either system could use local meetings, mailed ballots, or some combination of those things (which I think would be the way to go). So the key difference is whether all members get to vote directly for all party offices and candidates, or whether they get to vote on delegates to choose (some or all of) those offices and candidates.
I still think the caucus is the best way to handle the process, because a caucus system creates a first-level, easy-access stage of activist. To run as a delegate (to assemblies), a person has to make an effort to win the support of neighbors. This necessarily encourages neighbors who are party members (who want to get involved) to get to know each other very well. Much of that dynamic is lost in a primary; there’s no built-in incentive to get to know other activists in your area.
That said, I think if a party used a primary system, it could compensate pretty well in terms of developing activists by holding local events.
So I end up where I began: It doesn’t really matter too much whether a party uses a caucus or a primary system. What really matters is that government not force parties to conduct business one way or another. Unfortunately, most Republicans seem perfectly content with government micromanaging and subsidizing private organizations, at least when they are political parties.
Image: Ari’s photo of the Jefferson County, Colorado, Republican convention on March 19, 2016
Primaries Rob Conventions of Meaning
I agree wholeheartedly that government should not be involved in or fund political party processes, but I would go further and state that the primary system specifically and the caucus system more generally rob the convention process of any real meaning.
Once upon a time, local and state parties caucused about policy more than candidates. Each state party selected delegates to represent their beliefs at the national convention. That is why the national conventions used to spend so much time debating and voting on platform planks. Then, and only then, once they had decided what they stood for this time around, did they select national candidates to promote and, hopefully, enact that platform.
Today, thanks to the primary system, the national candidates are usually a foregone conclusion by the time the convention rolls around. The convention is a media event and nothing more. The delegates will still spend time fussing over the platform, but it is mostly a useless exercise – the platform that gets enacted will be the candidate’s platform, not the convention’s, because the cart is now squarely in front of the horse and the candidate owes little to the delegates.
Good luck fixing this, though.
—John K. Berntson