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Party Registration: Missing The Point

By Greg L | 22 January 2015 | Virginia Politics | 2 Comments

Now that Sen. Mark Obeinshain and Del. Steve Landes have introduced bills in the General Assembly establishing “voter registration by party,” the topic of how to “fix” primaries has once again become a topic of some discussion.  There are folks out there extremely concerned about Democrats voting in Republican party primaries and possibly changing the outcome of these contests.  There are even folks out there concerned that having government compile a list of people’s political convictions could potentially be dangerous.  What I haven’t heard yet is anyone acknowledging that whatever we try to do to “fix” primaries isn’t going to “fix” primaries.

Primaries don’t need to be fixed, they need to be abolished.  They themselves are the problem.

A “primary” is one of the methods that government allows political parties (associations of private people protected under the First Amendment) to use to select a candidate, but it is not the only method that our magnanimous government permits free people to use.  It’s just the method that is the most highly regulated, imposes an expense on the public, and is uniquely subject to government undertaking legal action after the fact if it doesn’t like some aspect of what transpires.  If primaries were abolished, political parties would still select their nominees using any of the other methods available to them.  We don’t actually need these.

What we would get as a result of abolishing primaries not only entirely resolves the problem of having “outsiders” meddle in the internal affairs of political parties, as the parties themselves can and do control the qualifications for participation in those methods, but you get a whole bunch of liberty-enhancing benefits as well.  Minor parties such as Greens and Libertarians don’t get disparate treatment from the government because they haven’t established some arbitrary level of membership - no more “free rides” for major parties to have their operations underwritten by the taxpayer that isn’t available to everyone else.  You don’t have government compiling lists of people’s political affiliations that will almost certainly be used to quietly discriminate against people in some arenas, such as employment in the public sector.  You eliminate a bunch of laws and regulations that apply to how an association of free individuals must make internal decisions.  Liberty wins here, all around.

Of course there are a bunch of people who can’t envision such an idea.  They might think that primaries are the only way they can have their “voice heard,” while they seem unconcerned about whether their “voice” is heard by other organizations that have a significant impact on the political process such as the AFL-CIO or the NRA-ILA.  They might somehow believe that they have some “right” to impose their views on political parties despite not being an actual member of one, as if parties as free associations of people protected by the Constitution were some unique kind of entity under the law that requires that their Constitutional protections be limited, which shouldn’t be the case at all.  Most of all, they are concerned that their ability to influence the outcome of elections is somehow imperiled if government weren’t running the show in a taxpayer-funded, government regulated political primary.  Gosh, those other guys I despise might win unless we maintain strict government control over how political parties conduct their internal operations.

What a horror if people harboring such ideas had all those dreams dashed and we just allowed political parties to exercise the freedom that the Constitution actually guarantees they should have.  Don’t like to sit in a day-long convention somewhere distant and inconvenient?  Well, if political parties were actually free to conduct their operations without government interference, they might experiment with new ideas to see if they work better, such as Single Transferrable Voting that could rip through a slate of many multiple alternative candidates in just one ballot.  They might experiment with internet voting, or having multi-day firehouse primaries, or any number of alternatives that might make the process better for candidates and voters.  If we just allowed parties do do what they’d like, they might actually find something that their membership would like to participate in, but with heavy government regulation in place, they can’t.

The problem isn’t that outsiders participate in primary elections, it’s that government has established a mechanism that guarantees that outsiders will participate in party nomination activities.  You can band-aid that all you want, but the entire point of primaries is to make sure that outsiders participate in a method of candidate selection that heavily favors the candidate with the most money.  It is a political process designed by the politically powerful to deliver a predetermined outcome most of the time.

If you want to actually “fix” something about all this, the way you actually do that is to abolish primaries.

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  1. Gail said on 23 Jan 2015 at 10:12 am:
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    Hooray! Brilliantly articulated! Bouquets of thanks!

  2. Stephen Spiker said on 23 Jan 2015 at 7:51 pm:
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    A few quibbles:

    1) I disagree that the “entire point” of primaries is to “make sure” that outsiders participate, and vehemently disagree with the rest of that run-on sentence. The point of primaries is ensuring widespread participation. The ancillary benefits of that is that it forces campaigns to be well-organized and, well, something resembling a campaign that has an actual chance at winning a general election.

    2) You speak of “strict government regulation” on primaries, but you don’t speak at all as to what that regulation looks like. Because that regulation is simply “ensuring a fair process”. If you were to spell out your opposition, you would be saying that you oppose efforts to ensure a fair nomination process. Which, of course, shines a bright light on the many ways that other processes, particularly conventions, can be manipulated and unfair.

    3) The idea that primaries are the thing holding back parties from experimenting with new nomination ideas is completely nonsensical. There is literally nothing stopping the Republican Party from trying or adopting any of those things you mentioned. The reason why it hasn’t happened is because approximately half of the party prefers primaries–and as you failed to mention, half of the party prefers conventions.

    The preference for conventions–which you largely and wisely side-step here–is near the exact opposite of the preference for primaries. The biggest rationale for conventions is that they exclude people. Keep in mind they don’t technically prevent Democrats or Independents from voting; they just make the process so bothersome that Democrats, Independents, and a hell of a lot of Republicans, are completely shut out.

    4) Which brings us to the best reason to support primaries: to grow the party. Inclusion vs exclusion, and the fact that primaries generally result in candidates more equipped to run a general election only builds off what was started. All of the other methods you mentioned simply fit on a line between the two poles of primary–where candidates make their case to the people–and convention–where candidates make their case in a back room filled with insiders. They are ways of trying to replicate the undeniable benefits of primaries without upsetting the pro-convention crowd too much, which hardly ever. And that’s why Republicans should forget about that tactic, and just wholly endorse primaries.

    All that said, party registration is a bad, terrible idea, and it’s designed to “fix” a problem that actually isn’t a problem at all.

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