Did 'Private' Choices Give Us These Nominees?

On August 2, the Kansas City Star ran "Public pays for the private political choices of each party" by Dave Helling.  His main point is that taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for primary elections.  He bases that on his contention that our political parties are "private institutions," not "public entities."  Helling writes: "In almost all states, though, the public pays for private party decisions [i.e., primary elections], a fact that would make the Founders cringe."

But the states require the parties to hold primary elections.  And insofar as the primary elections are "private party decisions," that's completely false in states that have "open primaries" like Missouri, where anyone can ask for the ballot of any party (you'd think a political columnist for a Missouri newspaper like the Star would have heard of El Rushbo's Operation Chaos).  Not only that, but the states intrude into the parties' delegate selection for their national conventions, dictating how delegates will be chosen and even how they vote.  How, then, can one say that America's political parties are private?

If Helling believes that the parties are indeed "private institutions," then the issue he should be addressing is not who pays for the primaries, but whether the states should be demanding that the parties even conduct primaries.

Here in Missouri, we had four candidates for governor in the Republican primary.  What the 2016 Missouri gubernatorial primaries resulted in is a Republican winner (Greitens) who used to be a Democrat and a Democrat winner (Koster) who used to be a Republican.  Only the primary system can produce outcomes like that, and it should pose quite a dilemma for Missouri voters in November.  If Missouri's GOP committees had the latitude to choose their candidate for governor, would they have chosen a former Democrat who had attended Obama's 2008 convention?  Maybe Greitens and Koster are fine fellows and worthy of consideration, but their ascension to the general election cannot be said to be the results of decisions made by "private institutions."

Helling seems to be committing a "category error" (or some other mistake) when he compares primary elections to other elections (italics added):

Let's say union members pick a new president, or a company's stockholders elect a board of directors. Those common elections are paid for by the members and the stockholders. Asking taxpayers to pay would be absurd. Unions and corporations are private entities. So are the Republican and Democratic parties.

This is a most unfortunate analogy.  First, one must pay to be a union member and to be a stockholder; union members pay dues, and stockholders buy stock, making them owners.  But voting in a political election is a right; primary election voters don't pay to exercise that right.

Helling's error rests on his misattribution of "private" to political parties.  Yes, political parties in America are technically private, but the states make them jump through so many hoops and put so many requirements on them that they might as well be public.  The parties in America are private in about the same way that corporations are private in fascist states: government intrudes and dictates.

Another thing Helling is forgetting about is that unions and corporations usually operate across state lines.  While they may be headquartered in one state, many of the voters may not be residents of that state.  But political election laws, including those for primaries, are state-specific.

The Constitution gives the power to conduct elections to the legislatures of the several states.  That makes sense because all elective offices in America but one, even federal offices, are specific to the states and the jurisdictions within the states.  The one political office that is not state-specific and that all eligible Americans get to vote for is, of course, the president of the United States.  However, in 2016, both major-party nominees for president are seen by millions of Americans as unfit and unacceptable.  Whom to blame for this unhappy turn of events?

The primary voters deserve some of the blame, but they constituted only a tiny minority of eligible voters.  The voters who didn't vote in the primaries – i.e. the majority of eligible voters – deserve more blame.  Even more blame should be heaped upon the convention delegates who voted for the nominees, for they could have stopped it all.  As for how much blame should be attached to the various party committee chairpersons, that is a more difficult call.

But the entities that deserve the most blame for the choices the American people have for president this year are the states, for it is the state legislatures that have produced the ungodly stew of laws that we call the presidential primary system.  It is that system that makes it so difficult for decent people to run for office.  (And I say that as a big states' rights advocate.)

If our political parties were truly private, there would be no presidential primaries.  Instead, party nominees would be chosen in national conventions by delegates who would be thoroughly vetted by party committees.  All delegates would be "unbound" and could choose anyone.  In a private system, there is no way "outsiders" like Sanders and Trump would have gotten as far as they did.  Sanders and Trump would have had to run in some other party or under no party.

But what about Hillary, you ask?  Some think she should be wending her way through the judicial system rather than to the White House.  In a private party system with no primaries and therefore no presumptive nominees going into the conventions, would the FBI have hesitated to recommend prosecution of Mrs. Clinton?  I believe that her designation as "presumptive nominee" affected the FBI's decision on prosecution.  And if so, didn't the current primary system work to "corrupt" the FBI's judgment on this matter?

Now that the conventions have come and gone, and we have our nominees, there remain but two avenues to having better choices this fall.  The first is that the nominees could drop out.  How likely is that?  The second is that the national committees might be able to replace the presidential nominees, which is already being discussed.  (There's quite a range of opinions on this second possibility; go here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

The fact that "the public" – i.e., voters – has any say in the selection of the parties' candidates is itself enough to classify the parties as being (at least) semi-public.  But a party is not a suicide pact.  If a party's elders see that the voters have erred in their choice for the top of the ticket, then rather than meekly accept annihilation for their entire ticket, the party should override the voters and replace the nominee.  Were the parties to have such interventions, then Dave Helling might be able to make a better case that the parties are "private institutions."

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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