The Billings Outpost

Primary system made for whiners has hole in it

What’s wrong with a Republican who will vote for a yellow dog Democrat in the primary?

What went haywire with the Democrat who marked his ballot for a T-Party wing nut during that same election?

The answer: Maybe nothing.

Modern primaries were whined into existence. Created to select partisan candidates to run in the general election, at first these contests came one to a party. Republicans would conduct one to pick the GOP’s candidate. Democrats would hold another to select a Democrat to oppose the guy with an elephant on his campaign banner.

Other parties followed suit, each running its own balloting. In any given county there might be a half-dozen candidates to fill any office. The candidates championed Free Silver, Yellow Margarine, Women Voting, Communists, Socialists and Peace.

The whining began with citizens who wanted to vote every ballot. The primary election evolved into a multi-partisan turkey shoot. Instead of a single ballot, every voter received a sheaf of them. The whiners who said someone had infringed on their right to vote when they were not allowed to vote Free Silver AND Yellow Margarine could only whimper.

Republicans and Democrats wanted exclusive elections in which only party members could vote. They told outsiders, “If you want to join our party, come sign up. Bring a hot dish. You will be invited to our candidate forums and join in picking the best men/women to represent our party.”

“Nope,” said the soreheads. We want to vote Yellow Margarine.”

The right to vote became the right to help pick the other party’s candidate.

Not all candidates competed with members of the opposition in the primaries.  Many jurisdictions chose an alternate method of chasing the horse for their course: the caucus.

A caucus is a gathering of party members to choose their candidates for various offices. Typically, they meet in a high school gym or grange hall, fill the building with cigar smoke, thump their chests and pat themselves on the back.

The oldest member of the party speaks first and is never modest nor brief.  He might open, “I have been a Democrat (or/Republican) for 76 years.” He says that in such a way that those with only 72 years seniority feel ashamed.

Next the incumbent office holders speak, thanking everyone for their vote, praising the men and women in the military, and reciting a grocery list of the pork they have captured for their constituents.

When the microphone is passed on to those younger than 40, they are all smoked by the braggadocio of their elders. “What are we talking about? We’re all Democrats (or Republicans) here.”

The crowd rocks the house with a whooping cheer, though I’m not sure why.

When the voting was done and the cigars stubbed out, candidates would circulate, recruiting workers for the coming campaign.

The caucus I attended was in Pekin, Ill., home of the state basketball champion Pekin Chinks. The name was not changed until 10 years ago.

Pekin is a  town on the Illinois River where everyone works for the Caterpillar tractor company and can be counted upon to vote Democrat for the next 76 years.

Party loyalty was bigger than patriotism. An old farmer turned insurance agent told me: “I voted a straight Republican ticket for 48 years - except once. I voted for Peabody 18 times at a dollar a shot. I was just a kid then.”

Politicking was a serious calling in Illinois. If someone fell sick, an alderman would show up with a tuna casserole. A two-car fender bender on Main Street would draw a swarm of legislators offering rides, free babysitting and the loan of a car.

Montana’s current open primary system has a hole in it the size of Fort Peck Reservoir. A well-organized movement could bring down one candidate and elect his general election opponent.

The trick is simple: Suppose all Democrats voted Republican in the primary, picking the opposition’s weakest candidate. In a crowded primary, a scandal is likely to make someone vulnerable. The scandal-ridden politician is nominated and trounced in the general election.

Every election year brings speculation of what mischief a heavy crossover vote might cause.

But it’s a problem that never happens.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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