July 21, 2018
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Why do states run primary elections? Blame Boss Tweed

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, speaks at a rally of supporters of ranked choice voting at the State House in Augusta, Feb. 2, 2018.

States and municipalities spend millions of dollars administering primaries for the Republican and Democratic parties. In 15 states, including Maine, voters who are not enrolled in a political party, but who pay taxes that support these elections, can’t participate in primaries for state and federal offices; 26 states have closed presidential primaries.

Earlier this month, the Maine Republican Party filed a lawsuit to stop the requirement that it use ranked-choice voting in its primary on June 12. Voters in 2016 approved the use of ranked-choice voting. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, after a challenge from Maine Senate Republicans, ruled that portions of the new law were unconstitutional for state general election races. As a result, the state is using ranked-choice voting for primary elections in state-level and congressional races.

The Legislature tried to delay using ranked-choice voting to allow systems and rules to be put in place to accommodate the new voting system. The legislation, however, also included a mechanism to kill ranked-choice voting — if the necessary rules and mechanisms weren’t in place, the new voting system would be stricken from Maine law in 2021. This was a poison pill.

After lawmakers passed the bill, supporters of ranked-choice voting mounted a people’s veto, which put the law on hold. They quickly gathered enough signatures to put the question to voters again. So, voters on June 12 will be asked if they want to veto the bill that would delay — and potentially kill — ranked-choice voting. Because the June 12 election is a primary, only voters registered as either Democrats or Republicans can cast ballots for candidates. Unenrolled voters, or those registered in other parties, can cast a ballot on Question 1, the ranked-choice voting question.

This scenario raises questions about why, since a primary election is limited to party members, political parties aren’t allowed to set their own rules? And why don’t the parties pay for these elections?

Why do states and municipalities run primary elections at all? Especially in a state like Maine where the largest number of registered voters are not enrolled in a political party.

It wasn’t always this way. For nearly a century, the parties held nominating conventions and caucuses, where consensus and party unity were valued. These events, however, became easy targets of corruption for groups like Tammany Hall and its Boss Tweed. The Society of Tammany, which controlled New York City’s Democratic Party for more than 100 years, rigged elections, engaged in patronage and kickbacks, and intimidated opponents.

After candidates fought — literally — at the 1965 Union Party convention in California, and another candidate spent $250,000 to be “elected” to a U.S. Senate seat, that state initiated reforms, including requirements to announce the times and locations of primary elections.

The adoption of secret ballots in the late 1800s reduced the power of political parties to control votes and was a big driver in the move to state-run primaries as states began to require, and then print, uniform ballots. States then began to determine the legitimacy of candidates, through signatures on petitions, for example. States also put an end to tests and other unreasonable requirements that kept African-Americans away from the polls.

This shift allowed parties to spend money that would have gone toward running elections on mobilizing voters.

That’s how we got to where we are. This history is a reminder that although it may sound appealing to allow political parties to set their own rules for primaries, this has a lot of negative consequences.

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