How do primaries work?
January 29, 2008 4:45 PM   Subscribe

Are primaries "private" functions of their respective parties, or are they "public"? Who decides how they work?

The parties aren't public entities, and they clearly control much of the process -- when the primaries are held in each state, how delegates are parsed, and such. Just as the DNC is punishing MI and FL, could they decide to not even hold primaries in some states, let states choose their delegates based on height, or whatever? And who decides if a state is going to have caucuses (cauci?) or a primary? And it seems that the states' public agencies expend a fair amount of resources -- it's the board of elections that does the tallying, certifying, polling, etc. -- but are they required do do so? Do the parties help cover these costs? If not, could a third party expect the same resources to be made available to them? (No need for a big discussion about the viability of third parties and all that, just wondering.)
posted by Framer to Law & Government (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The states control the primaries and/or caucuses, but the parties control the national conventions.

What happened this year with the Democrats was that they tried to reform the schedule a bit. The way they did it was to declare four states as "early", and then say that everyone else had to hold their primaries on Super Tuesday or later. The legislatures of Michigan and Florida refused to play by those rules.

The Democratic Party can't prevent them from holding their primaries whenever they want, but they can refuse to let the resulting delegates participate in the nationa convention, and that's what they decided to do to Michigan and Florida.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:33 PM on January 29, 2008

Each state is different. Yours is different from mine.

Here in Texas, the state government decides, period. The rules seem to change with each election. Some years we have a primary, some years we have a caucus. This year we have both, a sort of hybrid system. You can go to the polls during the day to vote to allocate some of the delegates, along with state and local candidates for the Fall elections. In addition, you can come back in the evening to participate in a caucus to select delegates to your County Convention, which in turn sends delegates to the State Convention, which in turn selects some more of the delegates to the National Convention.

Here, I understand that state law provides that the state will hold a primary for a particular party if it had achieve some threshold percentage of the vote in the last General Election. This excludes minor parties, although there have been Libertarian and (possibly) Reform Party primaries here in the past. In practical terms, only the Democrats and Republicans have the level of support that the state deems necessary to hold a primary.

In past years, the primary was usually held (if it was held) on one of a number of designated "uniform election dates", which could include not just the primary but also constitutional amendments, bond issues, and other questions and offices. This year the state -- not the parties -- decided to reschedule the primary for an earlier date. Thus, we get to vote in the primary in March, a General Election in May, and the big General Election in November.

As for who pays for it, some of it is by the state government. A lot of it is by county governments, which actually administer the elections, handle the machines, tally the vote locally, and so on.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:58 PM on January 29, 2008

It differs from state to state. For example, in California an undeclared voter can vote in the Democratic primary but must register to vote in the Republican. In Indiana you register ahead of time for either (this may have changed) and in days gone by they published it in the newspaper when you registered and who was registered for what party come election time. In Alabama and DC you can register however you like up to the minute before you step in the booth.

Some states (and some parties within those states) dole out the delegates by the percentage of votes a candidate gets, others are winner take all, others are winner take most with percentages making up the rest.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:06 PM on January 29, 2008

In Connecticut, the date is specified by law, and says that all parties must have a primary on that date if there are two or more candidates. (Hysterically, "party" here is defined as "a political party having the largest or second largest number of enrolled members in this state", so that addresses that third-party question.) The delegate allocation formula has to be certified ahead of the primary, and has to be either proportional or winner-takes-all. Then the results of the formula have to be reported back after the primary. All very complex. And these state laws are relatively fluid. The CT date has actually changed from what is specified in that link.

Of course, this doesn't mean anyone has to acknowledge the delegates that were chosen, which is where the DNC gets its power.
posted by smackfu at 7:51 PM on January 29, 2008

A constitutional question. Eponysterical!

This is at the least an interesting question. I think it helps to wind back the clock to the early years of the Constitution. First, every time you hear a politician invoke the Founders in favor of his party, remember this: the Founders did not believe in parties! They believed that nominees would come out of particular states or regions, and the system is set up in part to interfere with that. (They thought that parties were a pox on democracy, but regionalism even more so. Not surprising, as they had written the Constitution under the spectre of the Articles of Confederation, which failed in large part due to inability to solve conflicts arising from regionalism.)

It's also helpful to remember that the US is not a nation divided into provinces, but a confederation of nominally independent states -- nations -- who have sovereignty over all aspects of law that are not explicitly federalized. In practical terms, we're the former, but in the strictest legal terms, the latter.

So what was intended, in an idealized sense, was that each state would vet its own candidates in a primary. (Actually, the caucus came first, and the primary was an innovation of about a century ago.) The state's candidate would then be one of those in play for the general election. The primary, or caucus, would thus have little to do with any broader party apparatus, and had no real responsibility or connection to them in any formal sense.

Now, the non-partisan thing didn't last long at all. In fact, by 1801 -- when Jefferson was elected -- there was a clear division by party. But this came after the electoral system was established.

What happened was that the parties wanted, quite naturally, to act nationally. So the primaries would take place, and then the parties would get together on their own to take the primary/caucus results under consideration in the selection of a national candidate. Essentially, the votes that took place in the states were done under one pretense, and then used for another.

As the system evolved, the state laws around elections coalesced into the traditional two-party system we have today. This has made the primary votes more clearly part of serving the parties. But if it hadn't begun the way it did, there's no clear reason why it should have led to government entities holding -- at public expense -- a party function.

Now, the "direct primary" was primarily an invention of the Progressive movement of the late 19th/early 20th century helped spur on the use of primaries, as a means of creating more citizen participation, as opposed to the slating of candidates by a smoke-filled room. (The same impulse took appointment of US Senators away from state governments and gave it to the people.) Caucuses were widely seen as corrupt and -- without private balloting -- susceptible to undue influence e.g. of employers or gangs (literally, in the cities), and even unkempt affairs where your wallet could get swiped.

Our system is still changing, of course. The party conventions, at the Presidential level, have become sedate public-relations affairs, with the primary system now engineered by the parties -- see Super Tuesday -- to select a nominee well before the party actually meets. The rise of mass media has put renewed emphasis on the individual candidate. If the party doesn't select the nominee, or write a meaningful platform for the nominee's administration, it's an open question what purpose they still serve.
posted by dhartung at 2:19 AM on January 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

In Indiana you register ahead of time for either (this may have changed)

It has - now Indiana voters don't have to choose until they go to the polls on primary day which primary they want to vote in.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:51 AM on January 30, 2008

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