Jeff Jacoby / August 10, 2022

Why Taxpayers Shouldn’t Pay for Primary Elections

It isn’t chiseled in stone that party nominees must be chosen in primary elections. The smoke-filled rooms of old had their virtues too.

The second round of balloting for the 2022 Country Music Association Awards got underway last week and will run through Aug. 16. The roughly 7,000 voting members of the association will winnow the 20 nominees in each category down to five. The top vote-getters will then move on to the final round in October. The ultimate winners will be revealed on Nov. 9 at the CMA Awards show in Nashville, which will be co-hosted by country music legend Luke Bryan and a legend of a different kind: Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.

That isn’t the only voting currently taking place around the nation. As of Tuesday, Republican and Democratic Party primary contests for the November midterm elections had been held in 42 states and the District of Columbia, with the remainder scheduled by Sept.13. Primary day in Massachusetts is Sept. 6; early in-person voting begins on Aug. 27.

Naturally, the cost of the balloting for the country music honors is being paid by the Country Music Association. It is, after all, a private organization and while its awards program will be broadcast publicly, the right to vote for nominees is restricted. The same is true of countless other elections, from the induction of players into the Baseball Hall of Fame to the naming of members to Harvard’s Board of Overseers to the disposition of resolutions at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting.

No one expects the government to foot the bill for those elections. It shouldn’t be underwriting the Republican and Democratic primaries, either.

Unlike general elections, which are public contests and must be funded and administered by public officials, primary elections are essentially private functions. They should be paid for with private funds and conducted under private supervision. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party (and the Libertarian, Green, and other minor parties) are not public-sector organizations. They are private corporations created to influence elections and public policy.

Party primaries may share the familiar characteristics of Election Day, but they are in reality private proceedings with no direct or binding impact on government operations. By analogy, primary elections are to general elections what party platforms are to legislation: Primaries don’t put anyone in office, and platforms don’t have the force of law.

No law of nature obligates parties to choose their nominees through primary elections — which, for much of US history, didn’t even exist. As recently as 1968, presidential primaries were held in just 15 states. It is true that over the last half-century, primaries have grown so ubiquitous that many Americans might not realize that there are other ways of selecting nominees. But there are: conventions, caucuses, and the hashing-out of a consensus among party leaders behind closed doors — the notorious “smoke-filled room.” To each method there are benefits and drawbacks. And each method is, at bottom, an internal event for the benefit and convenience of a private political organization.

I am not arguing that primaries shouldn’t exist — only that they shouldn’t be run, and paid for, by the government. Political parties certainly aren’t short of cash. At the national level, each of the two major parties raises a billion dollars or more in every two-year election cycle. Vast additional sums are raised directly by candidates, who could be required to contribute to state parties to help pay for the nominating process.

If primary elections were open to all voters and all candidates, one could perhaps make a plausible case for subsidizing them with public funds and operating them with government personnel. But that is manifestly not the case. In most states, voters may cast a ballot in a given party’s primary only if they are not registered as members of any other party. In some states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida, unaffiliated voters — those who belong to no party — may not participate in primary elections at all. No state allows any voter to cast a ballot in more than one party’s primary. And the rules governing who may appear on a primary ballot as a candidate for nomination are, in many cases, even more exclusionary.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Balloting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for being named to baseball’s All-Star Game, or for the Tony Awards are also subject to numerous conditions and restrictions. Since those are all private affairs, albeit of intense public interest, how they are run is up to their organizers.

By the same token, how political parties choose their nominees should be up to them. Let Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and all the others decide for themselves how they want to go about picking their nominees. Just don’t stick taxpayers with the bill.

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