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Synthesis/Regeneration 35   (Fall 2004)

Yet Another Obstacle to Democracy:
Party Primaries

by Jason Murphy

As the 2004 presidential election approaches, Greens are hearing all sorts of advice about what we should be doing. One can expect both a media blackout, probably one even worse than in 2000, and loads of off-air vitriol, probably even more than before.

We’ve already been told that we should only run in particular states or only field candidates for less important offices. The problem with such advice is that it is impossible to implement. This is because we are required to use the primary process just like the other two parties. Where we have ballot status, anyone can show up and file to be that party’s candidate. This means we often cannot make the sort of strategic decisions we keep hearing about. I want to give other reasons why primaries, unique to American democracy, are such a problem. Just as Greens are working on election reforms like Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), they should also seek to end mandatory primaries.

…the two-party system stifles debate and disempowers the public.

Though seldom discussed in national left forums, Greens should recognize that our primary system is a bad one. When the subject has come up, many ask something like, “Don’t you think the people should choose who represents the party?” That’s just the problem. The people are squeezed out of the primaries by the same forces that squeeze them out of general elections.

Very few incumbents are overturned and the best-funded candidate is even more likely to win the primary than the general election. When I have explained the US system to friends of mine from Australia, Brazil and Europe, they recoil in horror. Everywhere else in the world, members of multiple parties choose their candidates by means of conventions. Parties then compete in elections using proportional representation or instant run-off. This affords the people a wider variety of choices (more than two) and is substantially more democratic.

Also, there is another level of accountability if parties can choose or withdraw candidates. The people are free to join the party of their choice and can play a much greater role than the occasional primary and general election voter.

Developing parties have an even greater need to keep their affairs in the hands of the membership. No other organizations are so hamstrung in their choice of representatives. For instance, the Reform Party had a problem with racists sticking themselves on the ballot and the party did their best to make it clear that those bozos, while on the ballot for the Reform Party, did not represent their membership. The Libertarians have had this same problem and the Greens have had similar ones in other states. Candidates in the US system do not have to represent anyone but themselves, undermining the importance of party platforms and publications.

We need an alternative because the two-party system stifles debate and disempowers the public. Voters in the rest of the world can choose from, say, 5 to 10 parties without fear of splitting the vote. Because these parties’ policies are determined by their members’ convictions, they are more likely to remain distinct in the face of public opinion. Their debates enable citizens to better take part in what democracy is all about—fair and public decision making.

If parties wish to continue using the primary to determine their candidates, they should be allowed to do so. The point here is that other parties should be allowed to form their own ways of choosing candidates, who compete in a fair general election. Likewise, if someone can find no party that will accept them, they should have the right to run as an independent or form a new party.

Jason Murphy is member of the Green Party of St. Louis and 2003 candidate for St. Louis City License Collector. Mr. Murphy teaches philosophy at St. Louis University.

[17 aug 04]

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