The Presidential Primary System and What to Do About It

democracy-voteby Jon N. Hall    7/15/15
The following article appeared at GOPUSA on Oct 19, 2009. It’s no longer up there, as far as I can tell. Given the political season we’re in, the central idea, which I still believe in, is timely. The article is exactly what I sent to GOPUSA nearly six years ago; it’s 898 words. “Try it, you’ll like it.”

America’s primary election system allows anyone to run in any party’s primaries. For instance, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a Democrat, a Republican and an Independent. If a radical leftist runs in a Democratic primary, it’s just possible that the Democrats would end up with a radical leftist nominee. The same could happen to the GOP.

The primary system elongates campaigns, especially campaigns for the presidency. Indeed, most of a presidential campaign is the primaries. Is it good for America to have these seemingly endless campaigns? Don’t a lot of folks just tune out and ignore it all? Because of the expense, length and general arduousness of primaries, some of our best people take a pass on elective office.

One of the more sobering problems with the primary system is that voters can vote for candidates they have no intention of voting for in the general election. That is, they can switch parties and vote for the weaker candidates of the opposition party. This tactic was famously deployed in the last campaign: Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos”. “Party switching” is an especially tempting tactic when one’s own candidate is an incumbent or otherwise assured of primary victory. The primary system puts a party’s hopes in the hands of voters before the real election: the general election.

Under the current presidential primary system, conventions have devolved into pro forma exercises, the selections having already been made in the primary elections. Unless the primaries produced a near photo finish and trigger a “brokered convention”, a convention is a coronation, a made-for-TV party jamboree. Conventions are usually meaningless insofar as choosing a nominee is concerned.

The current presidential primary system should be junked. It is a party’s convention delegates that should choose a party’s presidential nominee, not primary voters.

What we’re proposing here is that conventions revert back to being more like what they were in the pre-McGovern era. In such a convention system, the job of delegate would become far more important. Rather than being mere agents of the primary voters’ will, delegates would be the ones making the decision.

The selection of delegates, then, would be very serious. Delegates would be thoroughly vetted true-blue party members. But, just as with electors in the Electoral College, no delegate would be a federal official (Article II, Section 1. 2.). Therefore, the Democrats’ undemocratic institution of the “super-delegate” should be changed.

Under our proposed reform, conventions would be far different than today. Since there’d be no pre-selected winner, conventions would again be serious deliberative work. Those wishing to run for president would present themselves at their party’s convention and try to convince the delegates that they’re the man for the job.

But also, there could be a draft: The delegates themselves could nominate someone who isn’t even attending the convention, perhaps a general, an ambassador, or an academic. The draft reminds me of Arthur Clarke’s 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth (p. 48) where “it was universally accepted that anyone who deliberately aimed at the job [of president] should automatically be disqualified”. (Yes, the quote is from a science fiction tale where heads of state were chosen by lottery, but I thought it resonant.)

Our current primary system serves no one but incumbents. But with our new system, an incumbent would be required to present himself at the convention along with challengers. Which means: Delegates could decide not to run an incumbent. Also, delegates could reconvene and take their nominee, including an incumbent, off the general election ballot at anytime. The ability to withdraw a nominee is especially important to the fate of a party if a cloud, such as an indictment, comes over their nominee. (Think Ted Stevens.)

If some think our proposal undemocratic, they might think again. We wouldn’t be changing how we elect our president; we’d only be changing how we select nominees. Anyone and everyone could still run for president, but not necessarily in any party. If opposition party members don’t like it that they can’t vote in the primary of another party, who cares. If unaligned voters (Independents) don’t like not having a say, let them form their own parties. And if party members miss voting for a candidate in their primaries, let them vie to become delegates.

There is one not-so-little snag in our proposal, and that is election law now on the books. Changing these laws would be difficult, and met with stiff opposition. So until these laws are thrown out, I propose that convention delegates ignore the result of the primaries, forget that they’re “pledged” to a certain primary candidate, and engineer open conventions where they can choose, or perhaps draft, the best person.

Just what is a party? And how much autonomy should a party have?

A party is an exclusive club of like-minded individuals. Sure, a party can be a “big tent”, but it can’t allow too much heterodoxy lest it loose its identity. It is the party that should choose its standard-bearer, not the public. And it’s nobody’s business but the party’s how a party chooses its delegates and its nominee.

Professional politicians aren’t going to like our little proposal one little bit. But it is in the interest of the country that every party runs its very best people, and this just isn’t happening. I contend this is because of the presidential primary system. Let’s junk it.


Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (1821 views)

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5 Responses to The Presidential Primary System and What to Do About It

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    At the state level, peculiar candidates can indeed win, as a pair of LaRouchies did in Illinois in 1986 (for Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State), causing Adlai Stevenson to quit his nomination and run (unsuccessfully) as an independent instead. Similarly, we have the nomination of David Duke as a Republican in races in Louisiana in 1990 and 1991.

    Note that prior to 1972, there were a modest number of primaries. They were insufficient to control the nomination, but could influence those who voted in the convention to pick a winner. JFK used them that way in 1960 and Nixon (to prove he wasn’t a loser) in 1968. (It didn’t work for McCarthy because the party regulars rejected him outright. Bobby Kennedy might have been a different matter.)

  2. Rosalys says:

    The way it stands now, it seems the (so-called) main stream media and liberal Democrats have too much say in who gets to run – in both parties. I’m just a hair’s breath away from not showing up at the polls at all. I’ve been threatening this for about eight years now, but I always find myself relenting at the last minute. I am just very tired of having squishy, loser candidates shoved down my throat.

    I do agree with you, Mr. Hall, that a party’s candidate should be chosen by the party.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      There is a place for open primaries as a test of one’s overall political strength (though polls in theory can also reflect this). But they should play a minor role – especially if only one party has a serious race (which frees the other party’s voters to meddle negatively rather than positively).

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    We need a primary system whereby only those with common sense and a working knowledge of our Constitution and American history can vote.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      They had that (in theory) with literacy tests, which are now unconstitutional. I doubt the courts would allow such requirements to be enforced today even if done in a politically neutral manner. But it would be best if voters had some idea what they were doing. (Ronald Bailey, discussing voter ID at reason.com, favored more people voting. The idea that more people voting means more uninformed idiots voting is something most people can’t bring themselves to admit.)

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