Who Should Nominate Political Candidates?


Don Fitz

The
most important election reform for U.S. progressives is winning the right of
political parties to select their own candidates. Why expend tremendous effort
to win instant run-off voting, proportional representation, and campaign
finance reform if someone else determines who will run for office in our name?
In most (or all) states, only new parties that establish themselves by
petition are able to select their own candidates.

Once a party
receives “ballot status” (by winning a certain percentage of the vote),
then the party is forced to have an “open primary.” In open primary
states, anyone can declare her/himself as a candidate in that party’s
primary and any resident can vote in the primary.

Suppose a
progressive party wins ballot status and decides not to field a candidate for
a certain race. Too bad. Anyone can file for the position, and, after winning
an uncontested primary, be available for press interviews as a candidate of
that party.

A Green Party
with a platform calling for organic agriculture could find itself with a
candidate extolling the virtues of genetic engineering. A Green Party
candidate could be outspent many times over by a corporate agent promising to
bring dollars to the state via safe incinerators, responsible levels of clear
cuts, and a reasonable number of chip mills.

Is this a
serious concern? Many corporations find the public relations of buying an
Earth Day celebration to be worth the investment. They could easily see
similar value in purchasing a Green Party nomination.

A Labor Party
would not be immune if it won ballot status. A union bureaucrat could enter a
Labor Party primary for the purpose of winning and then urge a vote for the
Democrat in the general election.

Disenfranchisement
of political parties is not universal. Most countries allow parties to
determine their politics and candidates. In the U.S., this was the case until
the late 19th century. At that time, Democratic and Republican Party bosses
made sure that their pet candidates were nominated at state conventions.
Progressives and populists of that era proposed that a solution to top-down
control would be forcing parties to select candidates in primary elections.

Unfortunately,
progressive success in changing American election laws became a classic
example of a “solution” being worse than the original problem. Despite the
propaganda that permeates history textbooks, forcing primaries on corporate
parties did not democratize them. It had the opposite effect of increasing the
power of money on elections. The “reform” meant that candidates had to
raise massive amounts of money for both the primary and the general election.

The best way to
nominate candidates is to have a convention of party members (or delegates who
are selected at membership meetings). The convention reviews potential
candidates and selects those who have the best record of working for the
party’s program. A convention might decide to select candidates for other
political goals. For example, a party could select a slate of candidates to
reflect geographic balance. In the 2000 election, the Missouri Green Party
nominated six state-wide candidates: two from St. Louis, two from Kansas City,
one from Columbia, and one from Springfield. More important, the slate was
chosen so that it included two blacks and four whites, three women and three
men. Primaries eliminate the right of a party to do this. Primaries prevent a
party from saying, “We want our candidates to be chosen for political
reasons and not because of physical appearance or an ability to give slick
sound bites to TV cameras.”

Despite the
technical right of new parties to get on the ballot, the absence of
proportional representation means the U.S. does not have a “multi-party
system.” The left is fond of pointing out that the money flowing from the
same corporations to both major parties means the U.S. does not have a truly
“two-party system.” Yet, despite the conventional wisdom of progressives,
I do not believe it is accurate to call the U.S. a “one-party system.”
U.S. politics are best described as a “zero-party system.”

People create
political parties to formulate ideas on social questions, organize to win
support for those ideas, and elect candidates who will put their programs into
practice. In the U.S., discussion of a candidate’s sex life and other
irrelevancies on 15 second commercials determine, which non-entity will be put
into office. U.S. citizens are largely deprived of the right to participate in
elections based on political programs which receive a voice in the legislature
proportionate to the populace they represent. This is zero-party politics.

Progressives
should focus on re-creating a role for politics in elections. This means
parties have the right to decide if they will nominate their candidates by
convention, caucus, or primary.      Z

Don Fitz
was the eastern Missouri Nader 2000 coordinator. He is the Missouri Green
Party representative to the National Committee of the Greens/ Green Party USA.