I voted last Tuesday. Seemed like a normal, if infrequent experience that my neighbors and I were sharing. But voting is far from normal in human societies, and the way we just voted in America is unique.
Primary elections were invented here. Reformers calling themselves Progressives in both parties in the early 20th century wanted to wrest control of candidate selection from party bosses. Oregon established a presidential preference primary in 1910, requiring delegates to the national conventions to support the voters’ choice. Twenty states had primaries in the 1920s, but by the 1960s, it was down to a dozen.
The 1968 campaign for the Democratic nominee was chaotic. President Johnson was forced to abdicate. 80% of primary voters selected anti-war candidates like Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Hubert Humphrey entered no primaries, but collected the largest number of delegates in states dominated by Party leaders. He won the nomination amidst riots in Chicago and lost the election to Richard Nixon.
Average voters have more power in primaries than in smoke-filled rooms, but primaries are not perfect exercises in democracy.
The Democratic Party created the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to insure that never happened again. New rules insured more participation in candidate selection by the poor, the geographically isolated, minorities and women. Delegates had to represent all Democratic voters in the states. Those rules could still be satisfied with caucuses, but states began to institute primaries, and the Republican Party joined in. Soon most states had primary elections.
Illinois is an open primary state, so depending on which party’s election I wanted to influence, I could take a Democratic or Republican ballot into the little booth. I chose to vote among Democrats.
In a few cases, my vote could make a difference. Although there were six Democratic candidates for President, only Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were serious. The vote was very close: out of 2 million votes, Clinton won by only 35,000. For Senator, Tammy Duckworth, House Representative from Chicago, was challenged by Andrea Zopp and Napoleon Harris, both experienced and persuasive candidates.
That was it for me, though. The Democratic ballot didn’t list anyone for the House of Representatives or for the Illinois State House or Senate. The legislative districts drawn around Jacksonville at the state and federal level are so tilted to Republicans, that no Democrats thought it was worth even trying to unseat the Republican office holders. Of 18 congressional districts in Illinois, there were eight contested Democratic races and six contested Republican races.
The US Congress is constructed of mostly safe seats, designed by Party-dominated legislatures. According to one calculation, of the 435 congressional districts, only about 90 are considered “swing seats”.
The primary system is itself influenced by shifting party politics. So-called Super Tuesday in March originated as an attempt by Southern Democrats in nine states in 1988 to unite their primaries and seek a moderate candidate, but the Southern states were won by four different men, including eventual nominee Michael Dukakis. New Hampshire has defended its outsized influence by refusing to participate with Vermont and Massachusetts in a New England primary.
Average voters have more power in primaries than in smoke-filled rooms, but primaries are not perfect exercises in democracy. An amusing article in a British newspaper about the Conservative party cautiously trying out primaries for Members of Parliament puts forward all the theoretical arguments for the primary process. The author believes that primaries will insure that incumbents are not lazy or absent, and will increase diversity. Even though about two-thirds of British parliamentary seats are safe for one party or the other, primaries will make every seat unsafe.
But primaries can be used as vehicles to punish politicians for bucking Party discipline. State Senator Sam McCann here in Morgan County had voted with Democrats to support the power of labor unions against Governor Bruce Rauner’s attempt to insert himself into negotiations, and Rauner funded the primary challenge of Bryce Benton. Rauner also reached across the aisle to fund a Democratic challenger to House Speaker Mike Madigan. On the Democratic side, Ken Dunkin, state representative from Chicago, who sided with Rauner on key budget votes, was defeated by newcomer Juliana Stratton, supported by the Democratic establishment, including President Obama.
The drift of the Republican Party to the right has been driven by primary voters. Although most established Republican politicians have repulsed primary opponents, a few were defeated by candidates claiming to be more conservative, most notably, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.
Primary elections are part of a highly democratic political system. But the biggest problem in the American political system is the rancor of contested contests, fueled by the unlimited wealth of a small number of the richest Americans. One of the most successful political campaign strategists, Mark McKinnon, explains in a video interview how he helped Bush defeat Kerry in 2004, by playing up the terrorist threat.
He emphasizes story-telling, but his stories focus on threat, fear and villains. He says, “People respond to fear.” Watching the 2016 campaign, McKinnon regrets how nasty elections have become and worries whether our country can return to political equilibrium.
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