Should I vote today?

March 6, 2012

I have not yet voted today in the Virginia primary, and I’m really on the fence about whether I should.

This may surprise some of my regular readers, since I’m generally an unabashed romantic about election day. But I’m also a firm believer that the structure of the presidential primary election system in Virginia (and elsewhere) is fundamentally flawed, in at least two ways:

1. It is oppressively difficult for candidates to get on the ballot; and

2. Citizens who are not registered members of the party are allowed to vote in the party primary.

Let’s take the second concern first, since it’s as symptom of a more general problem. I’m a believer that the political parties are private entities, not public utilities. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in an excellent piece this morning, party nominations are fundamentally different from general elections, and should not be regulated or held to the same standard:

But party nominations are different. They are how parties govern themselves, and the parties should be trusted to know what works best for themselves. Hasen writes, for example, that caucuses are poor organizational tools for the parties. That may be true—but shouldn’t it be up to the party to decide? It should be up to the parties to decide whether they would prefer a relatively high-turnout delegate selection scheme that would put more influence with mass electorates or a system that empowers smaller, more dedicated groups of party activists. The parties are also best positioned to figure out which influences they prefer (including second-order influences; mass electorates give more power to the media, which parties might not like). More to the point, it’s the parties who have everything at stake here, so they should be the ones to choose.

I could not agree with this more, and I’ll even go further: normatively, there should be no relationship between the parties and the state. As far as I’m concerned, the political parties do not, and should not, exist in any public sense. They are simply private tools of political organization, and the state should neither preference nor malign — or even acknowledge in any way — their existence. In a perfect world, I’d get rid of it all. No public money to parties, no access rules, no requirement to hold a primary, no Ds and Rs next to their names on official congressional documents, and so forth.

And I’d start by scrapping the Australian ballot: getting the state out of the business of printing ballots, out of the business setting deadlines for running for office, and out of the business of controlling ballot access. Just a free market sphere outside of the formal political system. Parties can have primaries, can have caucuses, can have neither. Just figure out your candidates (or not) however you want, print up some ballots, get them to your supporters, and have them come drop them in the box. Most votes wins the office. The state is not involved until they collect the privately-produced tickets.

Still, I understand that we’re working in a second-best situation. Breaking: we don’t live in a perfect world. Corruption was part of the reason the states took control of the ballots. (However, I think it’s been fairly well shown that the parties themselves were complicit in this: the state ballot solved the problem of party bolting for them, minimizing the risk that third-party candidates could arise or win elections.) And things like the Democratic white primary are really creepy. (Although I’d be fine with a party that, say, restricted primary participation to people over 21, at their own peril).  But, theoretically, I think those downsides are outweighed by the downsides of the state having control of the ballots. If you can’t hold your party together, you don’t deserve the artificial hand of the state helping you suppress the dissenters. And if you want to bolt a party and start printing your own ballots a week before the election, that strikes me as fundamentally much closer to the democratic ideal.

But here I am. The state of Virginia allows anyone to vote in the primary. While much of the talk is about whether outsiders (i.e. independents and Democrats) will affect the outcome, I don’t personally feel comfortable voting in a party election in which I’m not part of the party in any meaningful way, and in which I almost certainly wouldn’t be eligible to participate if the state did not have control of the ballots. I’m not part of the Republican Party. My ability to directly influence their nomination system is, in my mind, not legitimate. Now, there’s a very good practical counter-argument: the rules are what they are, and even if I disagree with them, I’m still allowed to play by them. No different than opponents of Super PACs setting up their own this election cycle. Or of any reformers taking advantage of current rules, as is. My influence on national politics is enhanced if I participate, and my ability to change the system is not enhanced by not participating. Therefore, I should vote in the primary.

So I’m torn. Except that there is another issue: the ballot access requirements. And this just gets my blood boiling.

The only people on the Virginia GOP ballot today are Romney and Paul, because the absurdly high threshold required to qualify for the ballot was not met by Gingrich, Santorum, or any of the other candidates:

Virginia law requires that any person appearing on a party’s presidential primary ballot receive signatures from at least 10,000 Virginians who are duly registered to vote with a minimum of 400 signatures required from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts. The Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) required that these signatures be placed on official petitions which were circulated by Virginia residents, and that these petitions be filed with SBE by December 22, 2011. The political parties in Virginia are responsible for the counting of those petition signatures and the state Republican Party certified to SBE that only two candidates met the requirements for ballot access: Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.

That’s more or less the definition of unfair. I get that the state has to limit ballot access in some sense — otherwise we’d have hundreds of people on the ballot — but any system in which a well-funded major national candidate struggles to get on the ballot is more or less bankrupt. Oh, and before you mention it, there’s no write-in possibility:

Virginia election law (§ 24.2-529) does not permit write-in votes for primary elections. No ballot issued during the Republican Primary on March 6, 2012 will contain an area where a write-in name may be included. In the case of electronic voting equipment, the option for a write-in vote has been disabled. In the case of paper ballots, if a name is written in a blank area on a ballot, or a name is scratched through and another is inserted, it will not register as a vote. In no way will defacement of an official ballot be tallied as a vote for any person other than those candidates currently listed.

And in this case, I do feel like not voting has an impact on possibly changing the law: if voter turnout is pathetically low today — in what is (at least popularly believe to be) still an undecided nomination process, then maybe the state legislature will consider rethinking the ballot access requirements for the presidential primary. Because today, for all intents and purposes, the election in Virginia is more reminiscent of some banana republic than a centuries-old democracy. And don’t start in with any civic duty nonsense today. I don’t see any way in which it’s my civic duty to participate in a primary for a party I’m not a member with a nomination slate choice that is not reflective of the existing candidates.

Still, I’m quite up in the air about this. My instinct is to still go vote. So I’ll  leave it up to the readers. Should I vote today?

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2 Responses to Should I vote today?

  1. Odatruf on March 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    Matt – in your shoes and given your stated concerns, I would go vote. I understand the possibility that not voting, if mimicked by enough people, might spur reform. But TPTB could also read another cause into the low turnout and not the one you intend, so I’d reject that course for that reason alone.

    As you point out, going to the poll and writing a candidate in won’t count, per se, but that message is less likely to be misconstrued. If enough people acted in the same fashion, I don’t think the party would be able to assume that they were all confused or otherwise had intended to do anything but register system dissatisfaction.

    So that is what I’d do. Go vote. And protest while there via the intentional violation of § 24.2-529.

  2. Fight for your right to party | Matt Glassman on March 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    […] in response, arguing against further regulation of party nomination. I wrote a piece two days ago both endorsing and going further than Bernstein: in theory, I don’t believe there should be any public regulation of — […]

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