In the 1950s, reform minded activists sought to change the way by which American political parties select their nominees for president, desiring to wrestle the process away from powerful party barons, who passed judgment and cut deals while puffing on cigars in ignominious smoke-filled rooms. In an effort to open the system to registered voters and displace party insiders, reformers instituted the “open primary,” or a type of nomination system in which voters participate in a series of state-organized elections for qualifying parties.
Sixty years later, we have reason to doubt the efficacy of the open primary. In a vastly different legal and media landscape, the presidential open primary has degenerated into a glitzy road show of candidates and big money traveling through the media markets of various states. It is apparent that a new kind of political boss has emerged: wealthy individuals funding media and advertisements independent of candidates. Super PACS have transformed the American system from an election process by the masses, to a selection process of the extraordinarily rich and powerful.
In other words, yesterday’s noble-minded reform has become today’s broken system; the unbridled power of the party boss—doling out hundreds of thousands of state, federal, and local government jobs to loyal supporters—merely substituted for the unchecked power of the Super PAC, a spoils system in which campaign contributions buy patronage and access. This is apparent in the current GOP presidential primary, but will cross party lines as the election year heats up.
The good news is there are alternatives emerging to the broken open primary, just in time to pull people back in and prevent a further undermining of the system. One alternative to the presidential open primary is Americans Elect, an on-line nominating convention. This effort invites voters to express issues important to them and to choose a nominee among a list of candidates. Where as the open primary results in interests pushing a message to voters engaging public ballots, Americans Elect is rooted in the modern paradigm of pulling people into a website! Another political startup is Ruck.us, offering technology that pulls like minded people together for action on all levels of democracy.
It’s obvious why our two major parties are not innovating. They cling to state structures while the private side of their operations benefit as soft-money conduits around individual campaign contribution limits. Instead of being a voice for the grassroots, they are more a voice for the Super PAC. In these days of exploding social networking, they are missing the boat.
Looking around the world, we see alternatives to our open primary system that could serve as an example for us to follow. In France, socialists recently organized their first presidential primary, holding a national popular vote – in two separate rounds – to nominate their candidate. Millions of French voters participated in this local, inclusive, and privately organized event. Instead of time consuming, ritualistic caucuses poisoned by money, voters who wanted to associate with the socialists paid one Euro, cast a ballot, and then went along their way!
In British Columbia, moreover, the Liberal Party used a combination of internet and telephone technology with the single ballot process of Ranked Choice Voting – which essentially holds additional rounds (if necessary) instantly – to nominate their party leadership and provincial premier. This effort was one part party building and another part managing the internal affairs of a private group.
The open primary has outlived its usefulness. It has become another field of operations for a professional political industry consisting of consultants, candidates, and insiders who fund the slick media pushed on an ever weary public.