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August 02, 2018

Primary Power

Primary Voters Rule the US. General election voters just get to do damage control.

Did you like the final choice you had to make in the 2016 Presidential election? I didn’t. Who’s to blame for the choice we ended up with? Hints: it’s not the “fake media” or the Russians; it’s not even those who voted in primary elections who deserve the blame. Answer: those who don’t vote in primaries are leaving America, its states, and its localities with a poor choice of candidates, political polarization, and increasingly ineffectual and even corrupt government.

In 2014 (the last non-presidential primary year in Vermont), only 36,101 people voted in Vermont’s four gubernatorial primaries; that’s 7.7% of those eligible to vote. This 7.7% decided which of the six candidates running got to be in the finals for governor. These 36,101 people decided whom the 193,087 people who voted in the general election had to choose from. Whose votes counted for more? Obviously those who voted in the primaries! These primary voters had a wider selection to choose from and each of their individual votes had five times greater weight in the sparsely attended primary than each vote in the better attended general election.

It wouldn’t matter that primary voting turnout is so low if primary voters were representative of voters as a whole. But primary voters are anything but representative: they are the most committed, right or wrong, to various causes. They tend to be the extremes of their parties. You can see that when you look at the vote in the 2016 presidential primary in Vermont, where turnout, as usual, was better than in the non-presidential year. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary with 115,863 votes or 86.1% of votes cast in the Democratic primary. Donald Trump had 19,968 votes or 32.7% of the Republican votes to win that nomination. Where did the middle go? It was no-show in the primary. Notice also that when there are multiple candidates in a primary, each single vote becomes even more important – especially in a state like Vermont where a majority is not required for primary victory.

People who are committed to the extreme of a single issue are motivated to protect their views in primaries. Those of us who worry about nuance and need to know a candidate’s views on multiple issues have a lamentable tendency to say “I haven’t done enough homework so I’ll sit this primary out.” Frankly, there’s no excuse for us. The over-representation of zealots in primaries has made it impossible for politicians to deal reasonably with touchstone issues like abortion and gun control let alone the bread and butter issues of taxing, spending, and national defense.

Most Americans support reasonable limits on gun ownership. We realize that there already are gun control laws and that the second amendment hasn’t withered away yet. We don’t think any set of laws is beyond some improvement and are willing to debate what is improvement and what is not. But those who believe that any change to these laws is a slippery slope to a defenseless citizenry turn out in primaries.  A candidate with a reasoned approach to gun control can win a general election; but it is almost impossible for such a candidate to win a Republican primary. On the other hand, the most draconian approach possible to restrict gun ownership is a very good tactic to appeal to those who turn out for Democratic primaries. What do we (usually) get? two candidates with extreme views, neither of whom dares make any compromise lest she or he lose the next primary.

Similarly, most Americans support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion but also support reasonable limits on that right as the fetus matures, a ban on third trimester abortions, for example, unless the woman’s life is in danger. In the Democratic Party it is political suicide to suggest any limits, no matter how reasonable, because any limits are a slippery slope towards taking away women’s right to choose in the eyes of Democratic primary voters. And it is the rare Republican (except in Vermont), who can support any right to abortion and win that party’s primary. The candidates we get are the candidates the primary voters choose; they can’t afford to seek a reasonable middle.

Primaries are an experiment within the American experiment of federal democracy. Candidates used to be chosen by party insiders and the general elections were the only chance general voters got to weigh in. The party insiders, who wanted to obtain or cling to power, often tended to choose the candidate who would get most general election votes; that process favored centerists (and was also enormously open to corruption). Open primaries were a populist reform; they did help break the power of the party bosses. But, since the vast majority of people don’t vote in primaries, the reform is leading to bad government.

This problem is easy to fix; we don’t need to go back to bosses choosing candidates in what would now probably be smoke-free rooms. All we need to do is actually vote in the primaries.

Vermont’s primary this year is August 14th. You can vote in any one of the Democratic, Republican or Progressive primaries without having any permanent affiliation with any of these parties. You can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place on election day. Your vote will have more effect on primary day than in the general election. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

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