Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chapman Rackaway: Direct primary is an antidemocratic disaster

Emporia State University political science professor Michael Smith wrote how Kansans can participate in the March 5 presidential caucuses (Feb. 21 Opinion). Sadly, only 2 percent of the public likely will do so.

Primary elections, especially the caucuses conducted in Kansas, are a dismal exercise in internecine party bloodletting that polarizes our politics and reduces the quality of nominees for political office.

Since 1972, when Democratic nomination reforms functionally mandated primaries to select nominating convention delegates, the situation has progressively worsened. In a classic case of using a bazooka to kill a rat, direct binding primaries gutted political parties, unmoored the general public from its best political linkage institution, and encouraged fringe candidates to pursue party nominations.

Primaries have given us Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and most notably Donald Trump. Without the ability to sidestep party officials, such fringe candidates would never have serious chances at major party nominations.

Reformers believed primaries would invigorate democracy, create incentives to be informed, and boost turnout. They have done the exact opposite.

In “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” political scientist Morris Fiorina shows how primaries encourage candidates to seek the extremes. Ideologues and those mobilized by interests with extreme goals are the participants, pushing candidates to the far left and right before requiring them to navigate to center for the general election.

Why do candidates seem like hypocrites, starting extreme and becoming centrist as the campaign goes on? Because primaries make them.

Turnout is the most troubling result of primaries. In 2012, nationwide primary turnout reached a new low of 15 percent. There are two very different types of primary election: ballot or caucus primaries. Caucuses, the selection method used here in Kansas, is even worse than the ballot primary.

Ballot primaries are elections, similar to any in which voters go to their normal polling place and select candidates. Caucuses, though, are public meetings featuring speeches and organizing, vote-trading and negotiation among participants.

A voter in a ballot primary can complete his citizen’s duty in minutes, whereas the typical caucusgoer is committing to at least an hour and a high level of procedural involvement. The time commitment, arcane rules for candidate selection, and uncertainty of where the events are held all contribute to low participation.

In 2012, ballot primaries ranged in turnout from 31 percent to a low of 2 percent, for an average of 22 percent, according to the United States Elections Project. The turnout percentage is much worse in caucuses, which range from Iowa’s high of 6 percent to a low of less than 1 percent in multiple caucuses. Kansas tends to the average of the range, with a high of 2.9 percent in 2008 and a low of 0.9 percent in 2004.

The lack of representation, absence of engagement, and polarizing results should provide more than adequate evidence that the direct primary is an antidemocratic disaster.

Even returning to the old days of “smoke-filled rooms” and party insider choice would be better than the mess we see today.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.