The Supreme Court handed down a particularly interesting decision on Tuesday, but was largely hidden by the attention given to D.C. v. Heller. The Court ruled, 7-2, that the state of Washington was allowed to retain a two-party primary system in which the top two vote getters would move onto the general election. Theoretically, this means that two candidates from the same party could be running against each other in the general election.
Opponents of the state law (which was overwhelmingly passed as a state referendum) argued that the system restricts the parties’ First Amendment rights and it allows people who do not share the general views of that party to run under its banner (e.g. white supremacist David Duke ran as a GOP candidate in Louisiana which has a similarity structured primary system). The Court, however, sided with supporters who argued it was the state’s power to control elections.
The argument that parties have the final say about who can run in elections is not only particularly vexing but also lies at the current crisis surroundings the Democratic primaries. “The ability of a political party to select its message and messengers is really what a political party is all about,” says John White, the attorney for the Washington State Republican Party. Anyone who has been near a newspaper, television or computer in the last decade can plainly see this assertion travels beyond the realm of preposterous. Political parties have the same ability to select their message as cows have the ability to select if they want to become a steak or a belt. Did the Democratic Party suddenly decide it wanted to discuss race this week? Did the Republican Party decide it wanted to discuss poverty after Katrina? The media decides the message and they’ve been doing it almost since the beginning of politics. Parties simply get to decide who they want to discuss the message the media decides upon. And the media even gets a role in deciding if those people are worthy enough.
The real purpose of the parties, as demonstrated by the argument presented by White, is to keep a strangle hold on the system. No one gets past the velvet rope unless the two major parties give the go ahead. For an excellent third party perspective see Ralph Nader’s Crashing the Party. Why do the parties despise this ruling so much? Because it allows third parties a backdoor, one that skirts them around the media and the money. They can attach themselves to a recognizable party name but bring new and dangerous ideas with them. It no longer becomes about passing an arbitrary electibility threshold, but about ideas. (People laugh at Clinton adviser’s saying that Obama needs to pass a national security/commander-in-chief threshold test this summer, but when you consider it an electibility threshold is just as silly).
Indeed, the argument is being made right now among Democrats that Clinton should step aside for Obama because he’s the people’s choice and the superdelegates should vote for him. People who make this argument completely miss the point of the superdelegates. The purpose of the superdelegates was to keep the decision out of the hands of the unwashed masses, to simotaneously avoid the 1968 Convention and the 1972 general election. Superdelegates are supposed to vote for the candidate who can do the most for the party, this is not necessarily the candidate who wins the popular vote. No one seems to understand that. Should the system work like that? Probably not, but that is the way it was designed. To think the party would ever allow the popular vote to actually select the candidate is naive.
The irony of the situation? The Court’s ruling essentially reverts the electoral process back to the 19 century. Every presidential election before 1804 had candidates of the same party running against each other. The 12th Amendment was enacted to ensure that candidates wouldn’t syphon votes off of each other and through the election into the House as they did in 1800. Candidates from the same party ran against each other two more times. In 1836 the Whigs ran four candidates against Martin Van Buren in hopes of throwing the election into the House. Van Buren crushed all of them, winning 50% of the popular vote and 57% of the electoral vote. In 1860 Breckenridge and Douglas, both Democrats, ran in the general. Douglas came in second in terms of popular vote, but only won 12 electoral votes.
So, with history in mind, will the electorate be better off with this system in place? It certainly addresses the problem most voters have with the current system- the need to choose between the lesser of two evils. But it still fails to address the problem of a two party system. Only the top two candidates will face each other in the general. Even the Founding Fathers gave the people more credit than being only restricted to two candidates-the 12th Amendment sends the top three vote electoral vote getters to the House in case no gets a majority.