Political parties are one of the building blocks of democracy. When they are created voluntarily they constitute an intermediary institution between, on the one hand, individual citizens and voluntary associations, and, on the other hand, the institutions of government, such as the legislature and the executive. A political party is an organization that brings together disparate groups and individuals in a coalition to contest elections and to govern. At its best, a political party serves in part as a way to hold government leaders accountable to the populace while at the same time serving as a vehicle by which those leaders gather together likeminded people to support their candidacy. As coalitions, the political agendas of political parties may vary considerably but, again at their best, the parties can be distinguished by their agendas and provide voters with reasonable, predictable choices at the ballot box.
Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with political parties in part reflecting their ambivalence about the world of politics itself. Rather than recognizing the essential roles played by political leaders and political parties, in building coalitions and consensus and governing in a peaceful manner, Americans have often seen political leaders as corrupt, flawed individuals in pursuit of their own self interests and Americans have therefore seen political parties as little more than appendages of these politicians.
But political parties play an important role, which takes me to the question of who should vote in a primary election for the nomination of a candidate to represent a certain political party in a general election. I believe that only those who have indicated an affiliation of some kind with that political party should vote in a primary to designate a candidate to run under the banner of that political party. Given the structure of our society and the historic role of political parties, that affiliation may be looser than membership. But the voter must show some linkage with that political party to vote in the primary. That is because the primary is a mini-democratic process by which that political party designates a candidate. Before the emergence of primary elections, party nominations were often decided in so-called smoke-filled rooms, where party bosses chose the candidates of their choice. Over time, this process has given way in most states to primary elections, intended to give party affiliates the opportunity to select their candidates. It makes no sense for individuals who are not affiliated with a political party and, indeed, may have nothing but disdain for that party and its programs and policies or at a minimum an unwillingness to affiliate with that party, to vote to select the party’s nominee for office. And yet, New Hampshire allows independent voters to vote in one or the other party primaries designed to select delegates to the national nominating conventions. This is foolish, illogical and unfair.
There was a time years ago when the Democratic Party primary in southern states, and in some urban centers, was the only real election for the office at stake. That is, the Democratic Party was so dominant in the deep South that whoever won the primary won the general election. Preventing certain groups, in particular African-Americans, from participating freely in those primaries essentially left them disenfranchised. As a result, laws were passed that opened primaries to prevent excluding individuals and groups on inappropriate grounds.
As well, historically in reaction to the very negative view of politics and politicians held by most Americans, in certain “progressive” states certain elective offices were and remain “non-partisan” so that while candidates may inform voters of their political party affiliations the elections are supposed to occur in a more neutered manner. I happen to think that if such an approach ever had some merit, perhaps to weaken the power of political bosses nominating candidates in smoke-filled rooms, it does not any longer.
Permitting independent voters who have no party affiliation to participate in a party primary of their own choosing is a far cry from fighting Jim Crow or Tammany Hall and the days of smoke-filled rooms. What it does is take the power to nominate a candidate of a political party for elective office out of the hands of those who identify and affiliate with that party and give it to others whose interests may be quite different. This practice should be changed.