As we have been traveling around we happened to be in both Arizona and Nevada while they were holding their presidential primaries. I’m something of a political wonk with an interest in policy, politics, and social dynamics surrounding the two. I’ve been voting since I first qualified, participated in a competitive debate in both high school and college, and lurk around seedy debate boards in my spare time looking for good arguments. In short I take an interest in it all.
So it was fun for me to see the political advertisements from the various candidates and to read the local papers about the race. Normally you see the national coverage of the race but each state is its own little battleground with its own dynamics. The downside of being on the road was that I couldn’t participate in the caucuses in my home state of Washington. I had to be content with lobbying my friends back home to get out and participate in those.
To my surprise Arizona became an interesting story after the election. If you have missed it, one of the populace counties in Arizona drastically cut the number of polling places from prior years in an effort to cut costs. This backfired dramatically as record numbers of voters turned out to the polls and absolutely swamped the staff on hand. Lines went around the block as folks waited in the hot sun, and then long into the chilly night to cast a vote. Many of them, after the long wait, discovered that their party registration was wrongly recorded, others found out too late that independents were not eligible to vote in the primaries.
The national news was focused on issues of disenfranchisement while the local news focused heavily on poor planning and bad judgment by the county council. A video of the council hearings on the plan showed the election officials trying to appease the county board with as cheap a proposal as possible due to a fear of not receiving much money from the state for the election. One board member asked a few questions but they unanimously accepted the plan. It seems to me, ensuring a reasonable election ranks as one of the most critical things a democratic government should do.
The story brought Trail and me to discussing primary elections and whether independents should be allowed to participate in them. Trail was firmly for it, I felt more that parties more or less had the right to decide who could determine their candidates. She felt that if the state was paying for it, then all the citizens should be able to vote, and I agreed with that in principle, but wondered if the state should be involved at all in primaries and perhaps the parties should pay it themselves.
Feeling I had a deficit of knowledge on the subject I fired up the Google oracle and set about to find out why it was the state paid for primaries and on what grounds independents were excluded. It turns out that states started paying for primaries in the late 1800s / early 1900s because there was a strong perception party politics had become deeply corrupt and disorderly. A report from an 1865 convention in Sacramento: “Spittoons flew from side to side like bombshells….Inkstands took the place of solid shot. Pistols were drawn and used as substitutes for clubs.” And you thought politics was rough today?
So as time went on more and more states essentially took over the authority of determining the caucus or primary process in their state. The supreme court had a number of opportunities to hear cases protesting this, either from individuals complaining the rules set by the state were an infringement of their political expression or by parties looking to have more control. The court determined that determining the electoral process was within the bounds of state authority and that the great political parties could not be seen as wholly private institutions given the role they played in the electoral process.
At that point, the specific rules from state to state as to open or closed primaries or the use of primaries vs caucuses became a political matter for the individual state legislatures, and of course to a degree by the political parties from which members of those legislatures had allegiance. It seems my own sense of the nature of political parties is about 150 years out of date.
The real point I’d like to put across here is not my own take on how I think the electoral system should work, I’ve got another blog for that sort of talk. What I think is noteworthy is how when traveling, you open yourself up to experiences and ideas that will lead you down paths you never expected. Along the way, you can learn all kinds of things about your world and all the very interesting people in it. Be curious out there!
Reference: An article I found most helpful in my research.