How should government manage party primary elections? That’s the wrong question, although it’s the one most people are fixated on. The right question is, should government be involved in party primaries? And the correct answer is no. But neither the legislature nor Kent Thiry will take “no” for an answer.
Who is Kent Thiry, you might wonder? He made a lot of money working for the dialysis company DaVita, and he’s determined to spend part of his fortune fixing democracy, or at least fiddling with it. In 2016, he supported ballot measures letting unaffiliated voters participate in party primaries. In 2018, he supported measures giving commissions power to redistrict. He’s also spent a bunch of money on other ballot measures. (Also, as I’ve written, federal prosecutors went after him for a completely made-up “crime,” of which, thankfully, he was acquitted.)
Now, “Thiry is ‘extremely supportive’ of Senate Bill 101, which would end Colorado’s caucus and assembly process of selecting primary candidates and make signature gathering the only way to make the ballot,” reports the Colorado Sun. Unaffiliated voters could sign anyone’s petition. The current system lets candidates either go through party meetings or collect signatures to make the primary ballot.
The idea here is to make parties less powerful by giving unaffiliated voters more control over them. I agree with the aim of making parties less powerful. But the right way to do that is to get government out of party primaries, not to further enmesh government in them.
I have been making this point for a long time. In 2018, I wrote an article for the Sun, “For better politics, let’s separate party and state.” It is one of the best articles I’ve ever written. It is also one of the most widely ignored. I wrote a follow-up column for Complete Colorado in 2020 and two in 2022.
Let me briefly summarize my position again, as people obviously didn’t get it the first, second, third, or fourth time.
* Government has no proper business tracking voters or candidates by party affiliation. That’s just as crazy as, say, tracking us by religious affiliation. Government should track only whether someone is properly registered to vote or qualified to run.
* Government should set equal ballot access rules for all comers, regardless of party, presumably involving the submission of a certain number of signatures.
* Government should institute approval voting—vote for as many candidates as you want—or (less good) ranked-choice voting. This would eliminate problems of candidates splitting votes and voters “wasting” votes on candidates without a serious shot. Approval voting can ably handle any number of candidates on the ballot.
* Government need not run primary elections at all. But, if people prefer to winnow the field to two or just a few candidates, government could run a primary election to determine the more-popular candidates, irrespective of party affiliation.
* Political parties should be purely private organizations with no government privileges and and no direct power over any aspect of government. If parties want to set internal rules for endorsing candidates and restricting their members from petitioning onto the ballot, let them. Their only enforcement mechanisms would be kicking people out of the party and withholding endorsements, which, big whoop.
This is so obviously the correct position that I’m astonished that hardly anyone else endorses it. I mean, it’s seriously messed up that government gives political parties special privileges and forces taxpayers to finance their primaries.
I admit that this was not always obvious to me. Back in the late 1990s (last century!), I supported a move to give minor parties easier ballot access. Libertarian activist David Aitken tells the story of this effort.
The minor-party law has led to some absurdities. Often people can get on the ballot as a Libertarian just by declaring they want to run at a poorly attended party meeting. In 2010, thanks to a meltdown of the Republican Party, the Constitution Party temporarily got saddled with major-party status. Now I realize government has no proper business declaring things like whether parties are “major” or “minor” or giving parties privileges or subsidies.
What I like about Senate Bill 101 is that it equalizes ballot access. Not everyone likes that. The Sun reports, “Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said Senate Bill 101 would mean ‘you have to pay to get on the ballot.'” If that’s a problem, the solution is to reduce the required number of signatures—something bill sponsor Barb Kirkmeyer said she’s open to, reports the Sun. I’m open to the idea of opening up petitions to online options.
Of course party insiders—who, by the way, dominate the legislature—often love the idea of of elitist party meetings deciding which candidates taxpayers will subsidize through funding of party primaries.
But Senate Bill 101 does not go nearly far enough. It further entrenches government-run party primaries. It further subjects nominally private parties to government rules. Again, government should be completely neutral with respect to party affiliation.
As expected, Senate Bill 101 died in committee. But, as the Sun reports, Thiry already is threatening to take the matter to the ballot. I hope he reconsiders his strategy. Thiry is right that government should reduce the power of political parties. But he’s going about it the wrong way. Thiry essentially wants government to beat parties into submission. What he should do is help prepare the government-party divorce papers.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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