Tuesday was primary day here in New York State. Less than 10% of the registered voters turned out in Monroe County here . (I am proud to say that I was in the thinning ranks of those who exercised the franchise.) And I gather the turnout in NYC was at about the same level, even for the important race to succeed Robert Morgenthau as Manhattan DA. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to the primary, a political device invented during the progressive era to wrest government from the hands of the bosses, but has now become a tool of the permanent oligopoly, an apparent way to give people an apparent choice in who they will governed by, while counting on boredom and disinterest to ensure that very few people choose to vote.
Part of the problem are party-specific primaries. Perhaps they work for state wide voting (we will get to that) , but in local elections, where one party often doesn’t run any candidates, or mere tokens, party primaries effectively disenfranchise a large percentage of the electorate. And far from loosening the grip of parties, primaries provide a justification for their continued existence.
The alternative to primaries are run-off elections. On election day you have as many candidates run as you want, then the top two or three get to run off against each other, in an election, because it is mano-a-mano will attract more attention then a ten person race ever could.
And there is no reason the same couldn’t be tried in state wide elections, or for that matter, presidential elections. Let’s take last year. Rather than the series of silly state by state primaries, let the 20 or so candidates campaign and debate for a few months. Then, say in July there is an election, and all but the top two candidates are eliminated, who then run against each other. (Or perhaps a somewhat more complicated system where there a preliminary election that winnows down the field to perhaps five candidates, who then run against each other in a race for the final two. ) If this was done last year, who knows, the final race might have been Obama vs. Hillary, which certainly was the most compelling fight of the year.
In any event, rather then helping to create an interested electorate, primaries only serve as a demonstration of our apathy.