Participation in Primary Elections

In the United States, out primary elections process is broken. Voting takes place in the middle of the week on a Tuesday with very low voter turnout. Within our primary system, the candidates who do the best often end up being more extreme than candidates who we would otherwise elect. Rather than putting forward a middle of the road candidate, most political primaries manage to put forward a candidate who excites the most devoted voters who usually end up being the most extreme in their views and opinions.

 

Our primary system used to be controlled by parties themselves, but both major parties have opened up their primary system with the intent of creating a more democratic system with broader participation from the general public. The problem, however, is that the system created does not actually allow most people to participate in political primaries. Jonathan Rauch explores the problems with our current system in his book Political Realism, “A crucial premise of populist reform, namely that most people want to participate more in politics, turns out to be wrong.” Most American’s do not know when the primary elections in their state are, especially during years when we are not electing a new president. In general, we usually do not want to think too hard about our politics and about our representatives. Most people are not well informed about issues and generally hold to a few assumptions about parties and political issues. Creating a system that requires more participation from the people sounds ideal, but in reality it is not what we want, and it does not seem to lead to the kinds of outcomes that would be best.

 

Rauch continues, “Instead of opening decision-making to a broader, more diverse, and more representative spectrum … primaries have skewed decision-making toward the notably narrow, ideologically extreme, and decidedly non representative sliver of voters who turn out in primary elections.” When control of primaries was taken away from political parties, strategic thinking, demographic changes, and consideration of broad concern for political issues went out the door. The people who participate in primaries don’t represent most of the people in the United States. Primary voters tend to be whiter, older, and wealthier than most Americans, driving politics in a direction that is not favored by the majority. Our country claims to support ever greater democracy, but the outcomes that we receive are not always what we want and are sometimes worse than the original problem. It appears that parties should wrestle control of primaries back from the general public to put forward more representative and mainstream candidates.

 

I also want to focus on the fact that open primaries take away from the strategic thinking and planning that parties try to do in order to position themselves for the future. Thinking strategically is different than thinking tactically, which is a focus on the short term wins and the objectives of “right now”. A large political voting mass is more of a tactical thermometer than a rationally coherent group. When a political party is thinking about who to put forward as a candidate, they can be strategic and nominate someone who has reasonable views that align with party ideology on issues that the country currently faces and will face in the future. When a narrowly interested voting block selects a nomination, their short term desire for a win against the other side and their often unreliable sense about current economic conditions drive the nomination with little real concern about what would be good in the long term.

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