The New York Primary System Has Got It Right – Almost

Critics of the today’s New York presidential primary election argue that the rules are rigged in favor of candidates supported by the political establishment of each major party. The corporate press and progressive organizations have joined in condemnation of the state’s system as exclusionary and undemocratic. New York has what is called a “closed” primary system. This means that only “registered” Democrats and Republicans can vote in the respective party primaries. In addition to excluding independents and supporters of other parties, voters were required to affirm their party affiliation by October 9, 1915.

We should note that being a “registered” Republican or a “registered” Democrat does not mean that one is a member of the respective party. These people are simply party supporters. They have no direct say in the party platform, policy priorities, or allocation of resources. Some are active in party politics, serving on precinct, ward, city, county, and state party committees. But above the precinct level, most of these committees are populated by elected officials.

In addition, New York, like other states, has a number of political parties, including the Conservative, Green, Working Families, Independence, Women’s Equality, and Stop Common Core parties, as well the two dominant parties. These “minor” parties also field candidates who will be on the general election ballot.

I find the argument against the closed primary system to be illogical. Admittedly, our primary system is strange. It is a compromise between allowing party elites to select candidates secretively in “smoke filled rooms” and allowing the party membership to democratically select its candidates. It is not a good compromise, because it opens each party’s candidate selection process to the public in general without the public’s involvement in the operation of the parties. We are only allowed to vote; in this respect we citizens have no more power than when we vote in a general election.

The political parties continue to be clubs for elected officials and their bureaucratic support staff. And more recently they have become political “foundations” to which aspiring candidates “apply” for funding of their campaigns. They also serve as “investments” into which individuals and special interests allocate money in order to finance the election of candidates amenable to their priorities.

The main failing in this respect is that the process has been “democratized” while concept of membership in the main political parties has been rendered meaningless. I can say that I’m a registered Democrat if that means that my name is on a list in the Board of Elections office. However, I cannot say that I am a Democrat if that means that I am a member of the Democratic Party. I am a member of my union, the NAACP, two museums, and a retirement fund. I have membership cards to prove it. Except for the retirement fund, I pay annual dues to maintain my memberships. And I have a say, however small, in the policies and practices of each of these organizations.

On the other hand when you look into joining the Democratic Party, you will find information about how to register as a Democrat (i.e., become eligible to vote in Democratic primaries) and how to contribute to the party (which you’ll be repeatedly asked to do once you’re on the list of registered Democrats). The same holds true for the Republican Party. Of course, you can run for any political office (including convention delegate) and seek party support. But if you’re not already an office holder and you don’t get the party’s endorsement, are you really a party member? (In all fairness, in some jurisdictions there are Democratic and Republican clubs, whose members can demand the attention of party officials and candidates, thus giving them some say in party policy-making.)

Thus one of the two main failings of the closed primary system is that it isn’t restrictive enough. Or, more precisely, it is that parties choose not to be membership organizations, with dues, membership cards, regular local meetings that are open to all members, etc. Just like unions. (Of course, annual dues would give members a sense of ownership of the party that would likely make them resentful of groups of rich people trying to buy a say in party policy.)

The second failing applies to the primary system, generally, and however it is organized: we, the taxpayers, pay for the elections in which the Republican and Democratic parties choose their candidates. There is, of course, the argument that these parties dominate national politics to the extent that only their candidates are likely to be elected to important offices. This is not universally the case, as smaller parties have successfully elected candidates to local, state and national office.

More to the point, our subsidy of the parties’ elections helps to guarantee their duopoly status. I haven’t seen the Greens, Socialists, or any other political party ask to have their candidate selection process publically financed. But in Chicago, the taxpayers even pay to have the Democratic Ward Committeepersons chosen in the local election. This reeks of the Soviet system, where party and state were coextensive.

The solution to this shortcoming is to require both the Democratic and Republican Parties to reimburse the states for the cost of primary elections. This would be a good use of their PAC and super-PAC money.


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