Ari Armstrong, Elections, Exclusives, Featured, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The problem with government-run primaries

If, like me, you were foolish enough to vote the Republican presidential primary ballot, you might have scratched your head and thought, “Who the hell is Zoltan G. Istvan?” (Turns out he’s like a cross between Star Trek’s Data and Andrew Yang.) I had heard of only three of the six people on the Republican ballot in Colorado, including the president and Bill Weld, the liberty-minded former governor of Massachusetts. Of course, no one who voted that ballot thought the outcome was remotely in doubt.

Meanwhile, my wife, who’s a lot smarter than me, got both the Democratic and the Republican ballots, as she’s registered to vote unaffiliated, and Colorado has open primaries since voters passed Propositions 107 and 108 back in 2016. So my wife actually got to cast a meaningful vote.

(PSA: Ballots are due March 3, if you’re unaffiliated you can vote only one party’s ballot, and if you’re pushing the deadline you should use an official drop box rather than the mail.)

Our system of choosing presidential candidates obviously remains a huge mess. If you think about it, it makes no sense that some states get preferential status of holding early votes. Remember the Iowa caucus fiasco? Then the rest of the states try to figure out how to be relevant. Leading up to so-called Super Tuesday, March 3–which Colorado joined–Bernie Sanders already built a substantial lead. The logic of states competing for a place in line has driven the selection process to ridiculously early in the year, creating a hellishly long campaign season.

By the time Coloradans got their ballot, much of the Democratic list was irrelevant, with candidates dropping like Soviet farmers during a famine. Colorado’s own Michael Bennet dropped out in early February.

And then people voting the Democratic ballot have to decide whether to vote for a self-described socialist who literally honeymooned in the Soviet Union, a technocrat who makes Hillary Clinton seem warm and friendly, or one of several moderate, relatively sane candidates who probably have no chance, given they’re splitting the vote.

We also have the problem of what I call “torpedo voting,” where an unaffiliated voter votes for a weak candidate of the party the voter hopes will lose. We all know some people will vote for Bernie Sanders because they think he’ll be a weaker match-up against Donald Trump.

In Colorado, we actually have semi-open primaries. In a fully open primary, the state would just let every voter vote for every party’s candidates, regardless of the voter’s party affiliation. Of course the reason we don’t do that is we think Republicans and Democrats often would try to torpedo the other party. We get less torpedo voting when we limit open primaries to unaffiliated voters and when we make those voters choose a ballot, but we still get some torpedo voting.

It’s a good thing Colorado’s marijuana industry is doing so well, because you’d have to be high as a kite to think the way we pick presidential candidates makes any sense.

Maybe some people finally are ready to contemplate a radical alternative: Get the government out of primaries altogether. Not only do the primaries function poorly, they serve as welfare for the major political parties. Why should people who hate both major parties be forced to help finance their primaries?

Political parties are nominally private organizations, and they should function as such. If we got government out of party politics, parties would be free to select their candidates however they wanted. If parties want to use a meeting-style caucus system, fine. If parties want to pay to send out primary ballots only to their members, to their members plus unaffiliated voters, or to all voters in the state, great. Let each party pick up the tab for its selection process.

Parties could get even more creative. For example, a party could set a single, nation-wide primary day. Or a party could set a first-round primary to narrow the field with a second-round to solidify the candidate. Or a party could implement approval voting, wherein each voter can select as many candidates as the voter wants, or ranked choice voting, wherein voters pick their first-choice candidate, second-choice, and so on. These alternative voting systems would avoid the split-vote problem plaguing the moderate Democrats.

So we should get government out of party primaries, and we should go further and get government out of party business altogether. Why should government be tagging us as Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or whatever? We accept this only because we’re used to it. But, as I’ve argued before, this makes no more sense than government tagging us as Christians or atheists, ACLU or NRA members, or the like.

The logical conclusion is that government ought not even list a candidate’s party affiliation on the general-election ballot. Government should stop giving the major parties favored ballot access, set equal ballot access rules for all comers, and let parties figure out how to endorse their candidates.

As my friend Laura Carno says, “Government ruins nearly everything.” Although government also performs some essential functions, it has certainly screwed up the way that we select presidential candidates. We should get government out of political parties altogether so that parties can decide how to select their candidates and government can focus on running clean and accurate general elections.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.

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