Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Primarily Primary Confusion

A lot of attention has been garnered by the recent presidential debates which are ostensibly gearing up for next year's primaries. With all of the recent changes in the primary system for voters it has become quite a confusing mess. It was confusing even before the changes. Who actually knows what the difference is between a primary and a caucus anyway? (For more information see Professor Stephen Wayne's book, The Road to the White House).

Approximately six years ago, the USSC handed down an influential decision, California Democratic Party v. Jones (2000) regarding the primary system in the state of California (and obviously other states which had similar systems). California operated what they called a "blanket primary" in which register voters (not registered with any specific party, but simply registered to vote) could choose their favorite candidate across party lines. (In most cases, voters must be registered with a particular party and then vote for only a candidate within that party). The California Democratic Party filed suit against the Secretary of State for violating the First Amendment right of political parties to freedom of association.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court struck down the blanket primary. In short the opinion, which was authored by Justice
Scalia, said that the state of California could not provide a compelling enough of a reason for violating political parties' rights to freedom of association. Parties need to be able to exclude those that do not associate with it in selecting their nominee, or else the party's views will not be represented adequately. Scalia writes:

"In no area is the political association’s right to exclude more important than in the process of selecting its nominee. That process often determines the party’s positions on the most significant public policy issues of the day, and even when those positions are predetermined it is the nominee who becomes the party’s ambassador to the general electorate in winning it over to the party’s views."

Granted, that this is the case, it is still not understandable why getting a candidate whom the party likes matters at all. If this country was founded on democratic principles of a "government by and for the people" then why not open up the selection of candidates for a particular party to everyone? These candidates will eventually have to face all enfranchised voters anyway and if the majority of the population does not like either, then the election would be less fair. The majority of people who vote in the general election would have the least say at the most crucial stages of the game.

Framed in another way, the party's desire to be exclusive truly limits the value and of diverse veiwpoints and perspectives instead of increasing them. While Scalia writes that these types of candidates, since they must accommodate a range of views from the population, only become more "centrist" he refers to no social science or actual data. It is a weighty statement with nothing to back it up except general theorizing. In addition, it assumes that politicians cannot find ways to accommodate a diverse range of views while still satisfying most of their party platform. It is unlikely that candidates will be able to campaign for the general election anyway with the entire party platform intact since they will have to compromise then on issues to gain voter support. The rationale is messy since it really delays what inevitably happens: candidates will need to figure out ways to appeal to the entire population, if they are to be elected.

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