Why Do We Hold Primaries?

The primary elections are when a club like Community Free Democrats is often busiest, working to get out the vote for the candidates we endorsed. Certainly, primaries are great political theater. The presidential contest in 2008 was nothing short of epic, and every progressive New Yorker has their own story of hardscrabble election contests fought on the streets of New York to make sure the best possible Democrat found their way onto the ballot to face off against the Republican. It may seem surprising, then, that year after year we read stories about voter turnout for primaries declining. It might also be surprising – and confusing – to hear talk of considering “non-partisan primaries” considered by the New York City Charter Commission.

So let’s get back to basics – why do we have primaries in the first place?

In the 1880s, New York State instituted a major reform to allow any candidate who gathered the requisite signatures on a petition to be on the ballot, alongside candidates who were nominated by a major party. This reform helped ensure a candidate could take their case directly to the people and sidestep the shady deals required to deal with Tammany Hall and other patronage machines. But problems remained. For one thing, the reforms in New York did not spread to all the states. For another, the Democratic candidate might be a true champion on the party’s issues, or else might be a stooge for Tammany Hall while the true liberal Democrat was campaigning without his party’s label.

In the period of 1908-1912, holding direct elections for nominees of a party – the primary system we know today – became one of the chief reform aims of politicians in the progressive movement. The idea was that the more you allowed direct participation with voters, the better the defense against corruption and cronyism. Keep in mind that “progressive” in those days didn’t automatically translate to “Democrat.” The most famous progressive at the time was President Theodore Roosevelt – a Republican – and in the three-way race for president in 1912, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, and “Progressive Party” Theodore Roosevelt all embraced progressive election reforms to one extent or another. The goal was to give reformers – those most likely to be on the outs with the political machines – a fighting chance not only to be their party’s nominee, but to drag the party along with them towards the future of more direct democracy for America.

With this history, it’s no wonder primary elections are where upstart challengers still have a fighting chance to establish their credentials and force a debate on the Democratic Party’s priorities and principles. Without a primary in New York, Ed Koch might have been Governor instead of Mario Cuomo. Without a primary in West Virginia in 1960, John F. Kennedy might have never convinced Democrats he could win an election despite anti-Catholic bigotry. So as we approach September 14, and you’re talking with one of the folks who sit out the primary thinking their vote won’t matter – you can tell them that one vote has, can, and will continue to make a difference in choosing the Democrats we want representing us come November!