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.

  • Phil Alkon ’55, PhD ’74

    Dear R, The letter behind Sander’s name is an “I” not a “D.” A seemingly significant fact that has managed to escape the attention of most Democrats and the media. It could have been central issue in your argument.

    • Another reader

      While Senator Sanders has spent the vast majority of his political career as an Independent, he has stated numerous times throughout the campaign that he has become a Democrat, and has gone as far as to say that he will remain a part of the Democratic party after the campaign has ended. As such, The Sun’s stylebook prescribes that he be referred to as the Democratic senator from Vermont.

  • David Galvan

    The will and power of these two parties is exactly our problem here. Why should we respect the will of these two parties which are perfectly happy to leave the concerns of independents unanswered? What real options beyond towing these 2 party lines are independents given?
    I’m sorry, but this article seems to grant greater respect the power of the modern parties than it does to the spirit of democracy, and that is ridiculous. Open primaries are the only way to truly express the actual will of the people, rather than guarantee the invulnerability of these monolithic institutions.
    There is nothing democratic about the control which the parties exert over the democratic process, and which only serves to maintain their power and stifle the rise of 3rd and 4th parties. I see no reason whatsoever to respect the will of parties over that of the American people, especially when voter turnout is so low. And we wonder why voters are disillusioned.

    • Alfonso Feo

      “Why should we respect the will of these two parties which are perfectly happy to leave the concerns of independents unanswered? What real options beyond towing these 2 party lines are independents given?

      1) You shouldn’t.

      2) Start your own party. (BTW, it’s “toe the line,” not “tow the line.”

      • David Galvan

        Starting one’s own party isn’t a real solution when the two parties have complete control over the system, and prevent 3rd parties from gaining any ground or traction whatsoever. This closed primary system is a perfect example of that control; gerrymandered districts that favor only either party in power in the district are another. Look at the Green Party. This is exactly the problem I’m talking about, and I think I addressed it pretty clearly.
        I stand corrected on the wrong “toe,” but it doesn’t affect the content of the argument I’m making one bit.

        • Alfonso Feo

          So, are you saying the Bernie Sanders couldn’t have done as well as he has without affiliating with the Democratic Party? That seems to be where your logic leads. In which case, how wonderful for him and his supporters that the Democratic Party created no barrier to him making a bid under its banner, which provided him with both a brand and a national platform that enabled him to tap what otherwise would have been inaccessible sources of funding and also made it possible (through his appearance in the party debates) to build a national profile . If you instead believe that he could have done just as well, or better, than he has if he had mounted an independent bid, then you disagree with your own preceding argument.

          • David Galvan

            If Independents and 3rd parties had the aces to funding and exposure that the two main parties have, then he wouldn’t have had to run as a Democrat. Even so, he is now hitting the barriers you say don’t exist, namely these closed primaries which exclude non-party members from the democratic process in favor of protecting the party from outsiders gaining too much influence. This undermines the will of the people and is undemocratic.

          • Alfonso Feo

            You seem to have things backward. We don’t have a two-party system because the Republicans and the Democrats are so effective at keeping rivals out. We have a two-party system because the political structure–specifically, a first-past-the-post electoral model and the distribution of power within the executive and legislative branches on a winner-take-all basis–creates a barrier to the accumulation of power, or even leverage, by a third, fourth, or fifth party. If a third party were to prove viable, it would eventually either merge with one of the existing parties or in fairly short order replace one of the existing parties, thereby restoring a duopoly. Because were it to remain on its own, it would have no impact on policymaking, and so would be abandoned by its supporters. (The creation of the Republican Party perfectly illustrates what I’m saying.) Now, if we had run-off elections, it would be a completely different story, and our legislature could (and probably would) look more like a parliament. But we don’t.

  • David Galvan

    It really doesn’t matter much if the chicken or the egg came first, because once parties achieved their power, they took steps to strengthen and consolidate that power in a matter that works against 3rd parties. I believe that addressing these issues here would be a matter of dealing with both a problems of structure and existing influence.
    Frankly, the issues you outline are huge parts of this problem in my eyes, and in the eyes of many other Sanders supporters to my knowledge.
    Steps toward a Parliamentary structure, particularly in respect to proportional representation rather than the current winner-take-all model which is often followed, would be a great start, and would likely lead to a far greater voter turnout across the country.
    But that would also challenge to power of these parties, so neither are not likely to take those steps, regardless of the disservice to democracy which is done in their absence.
    If all we disagree with here is whether or not these issues actually undermine our democracy, then I don’t know if this discussion can be fruitful.

    • Alfonso Feo

      Well, yes, it does matter, if you are actually interested in changing the system. Because many people fail to recognize that the two-party system is the logical (and quite likely inevitable) result of the structure of our political model–which can only be altered by means of changes to the constitution–as opposed to factors such as money in politics and close ties between an oligopolistic media and the political establishment. Those factors are equally present (if not more so) in countries that have a parliamentary system, but they do not preclude the emergence of multiple viable political parties.

      • David Galvan

        So do we agree that all this is an actual problem, or are you just concerned with pointing out semantic problems with what I’m saying? I already acknowledged that there are both structural problems and issues of engraved power, and that I am interested in addressing both.

        • David Galvan

          Engrained* not engraved. I’m in Autocorrect hell.

        • Alfonso Feo

          I’m not quibbling about semantics. I’m pointing to important strategic considerations. Both are problems, but nothing that is done on the back end will have a lasting impact without substantial changes to the structure. In contrast, changes to the structure alone would go a long way toward creating a more competitive system. Barring changes to the structure, duopoly is a GIVEN, in which case registering as an independent amounts to voluntarily surrendering any voice in who gets to suit up for the game. Why should my party allow non-members to decide who will be OUR representative in elections? If you don’t like who we pick, you’ll get your chance to vote against him or her in the general election, just like everybody else. But if you want a say in who WE nominate, then join the party. It doesn’t cost you anything. There is no reason to not affiliate with a party, other than some self-righteous delusion of superiority based on a muddle-headed notion of keeping one’s hands clean or being above the fray. If you want to change an imperfect system, you have to get down in the muck, and get your hands dirty. If one is not willing to do that, then he or she has no grounds for complaint. You can be “pure” or you can make a difference. The choice is entirely yours. Which is more important to you?

  • David Galvan

    Manner* not matter. Autocorrect is not always my friend on my phone.

  • Jason Olson

    This article rests on a single foundation argument: That the parties, not the people, own our elections and government. If you believe the parties own our elections, then yes, forcing them to allow “outsiders” to help choose “their candidates” would violate that right of ownership.

    If, however, you believe that the people own our elections and government, you have to ask this question: How in the hell do we allow private entities to decide who gets a voice in our democracy? And why the hell are we putting up with this closed primary crap?

    Thankfully, it seems more and more Americans are fighting back against the parties.

    • Alfonso Feo

      Seriously? He makes no such claim about parties “owning” elections. He says, in so many words, and quite correctly, that parties “own” the right to choose who will represent them in an election. Primaries are NOT elections. As Rubashkin notes, again quite correctly, there is no legal requirement that a party even choose its candidates by means of a vote. Primaries are essentially a poll of the membership of a party to determine which candidate is most popular among the people who, based on their formal affiliation, are most likely to actually vote for that party’s candidate in an election. If you’re an independent, on what basis do you claim any right to have as much say in who my party nominates as the people, including me, who are actually members? Please answer that question. Why should you have a say in that decision, when, by registering as an independent, you have made a conscious decision to not associate with the party? In what other realm of human interaction could anyone claim such a right without being told to bugger off?