Thursday, November 5, 2009

NY-23 and Parties 1: Primary Elections

The Monkey Cage has really had a great week this week; if you really want to use the excuse of the off-year elections to learn something about political parties, be sure to read what they've posted, especially guest appearances by Hans Noel (and look at the comments on that one) and David Karol. Away from the Monkey Cage, I've already linked to what Seth Masket said, and then there was my first reactions, which attracted comments from Seth and a few other political scientists. I'll admit to being a bit of a chauvinist here; as a student of parties as institutions, I think that we're basically the specialists on situations such as the NY-23 case, which I think it's fair to say we all see as fascinating.

For example, see David Karol's terrific comment about the nomination process:
If factions in a party do not respect their own nomination process that is a big problem for it. Alan Ware has shown that part of the reason party leaders supported the creation of the Australian ballot and, some years later, the establishment of primaries was that they needed a nomination process that would appear legitimate to losers in order to minimize splits. Part of being a successful party is accepting that you fight your fight inside the organization and then respect its verdict.
Alan Ware's book on the subject, The American Direct Primary, is just wonderful work. Do you know why Americans adopted the "Australian ballot" in the late 19th century? Odds are you believe that it was an anti-corruption idea; we call the Australian ballot the "secret" ballot, which shows our emphasis on what we think of as important about it. But what's actually important about the Australian ballot is that the government gives us names to choose from. Before the adoption of that reform, voters were responsible for listing the names of the candidates they supported, which in practical terms meant that party leaders would hand out pre-filled-out ballots, and voters would take those ballots from party leaders and turn them in. As populations grew, this became subject to various abuses, as Ware explains:
For example, it was quite easy to imitate the other party's ballot. If the voter did not know the person who was handing him the ballot, it was possible to give him one that looked like his party's ballot but which actually contained the names of some candidates, or perhaps many candidates, of the opposition party. The illiterate voter could well be at the mercy of such practices, but even diligent and literate voters might fall victim to them (35).
In other words, you go to vote, find the table outside that gives out the Democratic Party ballots (color-coded, to make it easier for you), but it turns out that it some Republican mole was actually giving out ballots with Republican candidates, not the Democrats. Oops!

But dirty tricks from the other party weren't the only problems. Within the party, there was nothing to keep local officials from dissenting from the larger party. To do so, all they had to do was either print up their own set of ballots with different names for one or more offices, or, if they didn't have the resources to print their own ballots, then they could just cover up the "real" nominee with another name, a "paster," stuck on over it. So in the 19th century equivalent of NY-23, the question would have been whether the party committee who picked Scozzofava could prevent the Republican Party officials and workers in the various towns around the district from "knifing" her and putting Hoffman's name on the ballot instead. Or, different factions could just hand out two sets of ballots, and then voters could choose.

This was a real mess for the parties, so they decided to solve the problem by getting the government to print up official ballots, with only the "real" candidates. OK, next problem: which ones are the real candidates? If the Republican Party officials send one name, and the Tea Party Republicans send another one, what is the State of New York to do? Again, that wasn't just a problem for the state; it was a problem for the parties, who wanted to maintain control over nominations. The answer, eventually, was to have the State of New York conduct primary elections, with the winner given exclusive right to the party line on the general election ballot. Parties believed (at first, Ware tells us, with good reason) that they could control those elections, and then with the state's help they could enforce that control.

Of course, in our actual NY-23, there was no primary; many states avoid primaries and let formal party organizations dictate the nominee in the unusual case of special elections. Now, there were some flukish things that allowed NY-23 to play out as it did...one was the absence of a primary election, but another is that New York happens to have an available "Conservative Party" line on its general election ballot, and that Hoffman was able to secure that line. Most states have one or two party lines on their regular ballots beyond the Democrats and Republicans, but New York (for various historical reasons, most of which I don't know) happens to be pretty generous with the size of their ballots -- and not only are there lines available, but the "Conservative Party" isn't an exclusive, single-issue group that might object to being hijacked by a rump group of GOP splitters. If all that were available, for example, was a Libertarian line, I suspect that in at least some states Hoffman might have failed to get the nomination because his policy positions don't match the Libertarian Party's positions.

As David Karol says, it's a pretty big deal if parties can't get everyone to accept nominations once they are made. He concludes (with caveats) that this case "tends to undermine claims that party leaders would choose candidates more wisely than ordinary primary voters do." I'm not sure if that's correct, and I'm going to continue talking about it in a second, less historical, post, but the first thing to say here is that I think that the primary process might have sorted some of this out. If she had been forced to face Hoffman in a primary election, Scozzofava would have had an opportunity to move to the right -- she could have at least ditched her support for same-sex marriage, and she could have emphasized those strong conservative positions she help on some issues that would have played well in the general election in upstate NY. I have no idea whether she would have won a primary against Hoffman, but I'm confident that the way things played out in the general election doesn't tell us what would have happened. So, I'd modify David's assertion: I'd say that this case tends to undermine claims that a process in which party leaders directly control nominations would choose candidates more wisely than party primary elections do. At least in the short run, primary elections turn out to be really successful at convincing everyone to treat their winner as the legitimate choice of the party.

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