April 25, 2016

RUBASHKIN | Close-Minded on Closed Primaries

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A week ago today, New Yorkers handed Hillary Clinton her most convincing victory in a month, snapping the secretary’s seven-state losing streak and putting her back on track to clinch the nomination before the July convention in Philadelphia. It also was the latest entry in an increasingly long list of “final nails in the coffin” of the Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) campaign. Clinton’s larger-than-expected margin of victory in the Empire State — coupled with an increasingly friendly upcoming primary schedule (including quite possibly the greatest state in the Union, Maryland) — leaves the Vermont ideologue with a path to the nomination so narrow even Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) thinks he should probably call it quits.

On paper, today’s primaries (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania) should be relatively favorable for Sanders. Connecticut and Rhode Island are practically home territory for the longtime Vermont senator and have already been barraged by previous ad buys targeting Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Delaware is just the sort of middle-of-the-road blue state Sanders’ needs to win to prove his viability, and as long as they don’t allow corporations to vote (these days, who knows) he should be able to do well. Maryland, besides boasting what is undoubtedly the most fantastic flag in the nation, is home to an energetic and liberal Democratic base and turnout will likely be high due to an especially contentious Senate primary. And then there’s Pennsylvania.

At one point, Pennsylvania would have been seen as the potential crown jewel of the Sanders campaign; the Keystone State has a large population, substantial blue-collar industry, a straight-talking demeanor and the allure of a general election swing state. But instead of marching through the streets of Philadelphia with a fanfare not seen since Nick Foles threw seven touchdowns to beat the Raiders, Sanders is limping down Interstate 81 with a 15.8 percent polling deficit, according to RealClearPolitics. What is it about these states that make them so much more difficult for Sanders than they could be?

All five primaries today are what are known as “closed primaries.” In that setup, only registered members of a political party can vote in that party’s primary, effectively shutting out registered independents. For instance, the New York Democratic Party requires that Independents who wish to vote in the primary switch their party registration to Democratic six months beforehand. As a result, not an insignificant number of registered independents (many of whom support the Vermonter) were turned away at the voting booth. Senator Sanders, who performs markedly better in open primaries than he does in closed ones, was quick to decry the New York system. The truth is that the New York primary system has plenty of flaws that beg recognition and correction, but being closed is not one of them.

Presidential primaries are not the same as general elections. There is nothing in the Constitution about presidential primaries (or primaries of any kind). The state parties have full discretion to conduct their primaries in whatever way they see fit. Some state parties — looking at you, North Dakota Republicans — choose to forgo the whole “public opinion” factor entirely and select their delegates at a convention of party leaders. Simply put, while voting in a general election is a civic right and responsibility, voting in a primary is a privilege bestowed on the people by the parties to which they subscribe.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are competing for the Democratic nomination. Why is it such a far-fetched idea that the decision should fall to the Democrats? Maybe, a voter who so noncommittal about his or her political allegiances that they refuse to associate with the party they are now trying to influence is not entitled to participate in that process.

“The primary” has one purpose: the selection of a standard-bearer by each political party. Whoever goes on to win the nomination will be the de facto national representative and leader of the Democratic Party. In the old days, this process was executed, quite literally, by the party itself. Party leaders across the nation met behind closed doors and selected the candidate they thought best to represent the party on a national stage. Over the last half-century, the process has democratized considerably, but the purpose of the primary remains the same.

At its core, the primary isn’t about electing a president; it’s about electing a nominee and a representative. This is a nuance that seems to escape Senator Sanders and those of his supporters who call for more open primaries. The process cannot be truly representative of the will of the party if it allows for the participation of those with no commitment to the party. This isn’t a restriction on the voice of registered independents. They will have their opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate in the general election, as prescribed by the constitution. A closed primary makes sure that those speaking and making the choice for the Democratic Party are actually members of that party.

This conundrum is a byproduct of  the clash between our deeply entrenched two-party system and an increase in the number of Americans identifying as “Independent” (over 40 percent, according to Gallup Poll). While a large portion of those voters still vote one party or the other fairly consistently, there is an unmistakable trend towards party de-affiliation. Whether borne of fierce ideological moderation or simply from distrust with political systems, Americans seem loath to resign themselves to a little “R” or “D” next to their names. So, then, what is to be done?

There are a few ways to move forward while respecting the true purpose of the primary. The first and simplest is maintenance of the status quo. In this scenario, Independents can either associate with whichever party more closely aligns with their personal beliefs (thus losing out on whatever gratification they derive from operating “outside the system”) and vote consistently in that party’s primary, or they can continue to let each party choose their own representatives and then be dissatisfied when they don’t like the result.

The second is an adoption of what is known as “the jungle primary,” a system used in local and state elections in several states, California being the most prominent. In a jungle primary, candidates from both parties run against each other in a preliminary election in which everyone, regardless of party affiliation, votes. In most jungle primary systems, if one candidate gets 50 percent or more of that preliminary vote they are automatically elected; if not, the top two vote-getters go on to compete in a general election. However, the system breaks down when confronted with fragmentation; consider, for instance, the current primary season. With 17 Republicans and only five (well, really only three) Democrats initially in the running, any one Republican placing in the top two is unlikely. When applied to local congressional elections, the jungle primary can often result in two candidates of the same party competing against each other, making members of the other party feel disenfranchised.

The third and final option is also the least likely: the creation of a viable third, moderate party. If as many Americans really feel as disconnected from both political parties as they claim to be, and that disconnect really is rooted in increased polarization, then the creation of a centrist third party is the only way to ensure that all Americans have a voice in the nomination process without corrupting the fundamental purpose of the primary. As with most ideal solutions, the creation of an organized centrist third party is highly improbable and faces nearly insurmountable systematic barriers.

Open and semi-open primaries, those favored by Senator Sanders, are not true primaries, and they distort the political will of the people. In our current political structure, closed primaries are the only true way to ensure that a party’s nominee is really the choice of that party. Otherwise there is no purpose for them.

Jacob Rubashkin is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jrubashkin@cornellsun.com. The Jacobin appears alternate Mondays this semester.