Our unconstitutional primaries

Our unconstitutional primaries

Posted: Monday, January 2, 2012 7:03 pm

By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Only two GOP presidential candidates (Mitt Romney and Ron Paul) managed to get on the ballot in Virginia, underscoring how difficult it is to run for president if you don’t have a well-oiled machine taking care of these things.
Newt Gingrich operates on a wing and a prayer, and so it’s not surprising that he missed the deadline. Rick Perry has money and organization, but even he couldn’t muster the required 10,000 signatures, including a requisite number from each of Virginia’s congressional districts, to satisfy the state’s Republican Party and Board of Elections.
Perry filed a narrowly-focused lawsuit contending that his constitutional rights were violated by a provision that requires that anyone gathering the signatures and circulating the petitions must be “an eligible or registered qualified voter in Virginia.” Perry got into the race late by modern standards, and unless he does well in the early voting in Iowa and South Carolina, he may not be around by the time of the March 6 Super Tuesday primary, when voters go to the polls in Virginia.
Even so, his suit has merit and deserves consideration. The hoops that candidates have to jump through to gain ballot access are excessive, and so is the cost to taxpayers of holding what amount to exclusionary primaries in state after state. Partisan primaries are the brainchild of the two major political parties, and their relevance is questionable as more and more Americans identify themselves as Independents, and therefore can’t participate.
There is nothing written in the Constitution about political parties, and it is only logical to wonder why taxpayers should foot the costs of holding primaries for voters of any one political persuasion, be they Republicans or Democrats.
Independents or voters who decline to state a party identification are the fastest growing group at a time when trust in government is at or near record lows. Virginia has what is known as an open primary system, where Independents can participate. It’s like being a Democrat or a Republican for a day, or at least the time it takes to cast your vote.
Seventeen states hold open primaries, including South Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin. New Hampshire, a key battle ground, is considered an open primary state since voters can cast their ballot in either the Republican or Democratic primary, but it doesn’t meet the technical definition because a voter registered with one of the two major political parties on election day can’t vote in the opposing party’s primary.
New Hampshire voters tend to jump back and forth between the parties depending on which has the more interesting race. In 2008, when it was presumed that Barack Obama would win New Hampshire on the heels of his strong showing in Iowa, a good number of Democratic voters opted to participate in the Republican primary, helping to propel John McCain to victory, and deflating Obama, who lost to Hillary Clinton.
Truly open primaries where party labels are discarded would energize voters and encourage more participation. Closed primaries, where only registered members of one party can cast their ballots, are exclusionary and undermine the democratic system.
They are also potentially unconstitutional should anyone dare to press the case because taxpayers are being compelled to pay for primaries not open to all voters.
Anyone watching the primaries unfold can see how undemocratic the process has become. Iowa has a caucus system, but it’s a closed caucus, limited to registered Republicans and registered Democrats. The result is that the first decision-making about who should be the GOP’s challenger to President Obama is left in the hands of a very small slice of the electorate that is not representative of the country, or even the GOP as a whole. Published in The Messenger 1.2.12

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