My Primary Predicament
March first is primary day here in Texas for both the Republican and Democratic parties. It is a full eight months before the election in November, which means we have months and months of political ads (mostly negative attack ads) to wade through. But the November elections are the easy part. Given the current divisive nature of American politics, most of the electorate will be voting their traditional party affiliations, ignoring the hyperbolic diatribes on the TV screen (our mute button has been used so often that it gave up the ghost and no longer functions). Even independents have it easy. They will have only one Republican or Democrat to choose from come November (Libertarians, Greens and whatever else there is on the ballot having no chance of winning).
But the real election is right now, in the primaries. This is where the real shape of the election will be determined, and it will be determined by only a fraction of the registered voters in Texas. In the last off-year election (2018), only about 15% of registered voters participated in the primaries compared to around 53% in the general election of 2018. And keep in mind that voter turnout in 2018 was higher than usual in reaction to the Trump presidency (53.4% in the 2018 general election compared to 41.9% in 2014). So, only about 8 or 9 percent of registered voters are determining who will be the next governor of the state, and an even lower percent for the other elective offices (and, boy, there are a lot of them).
My Republican sample ballot lists eight candidates for governor and six for lieutenant governor while there are five and three on the Democratic ballot. That’s not really much of a problem as there are only a couple of viable candidates at the top of the ballot. Just below the governor and lieutenant governor candidates are four Republicans and five Democrats running for the post of Texas attorney general, which is a harder choice because many of those candidates are less well known. But when we get down to the Comptroller of Public Accounts, Land Commissioner, Commissioner of Agriculture and Railroad Commissioner it is almost impossible to know who is running. There are eight Republicans running for the General Land office and five for Railroad Commissioner (fewer Democrats but still a lot). It gets even more confusing when you go down the ballot to select justices, judges (nine positions) and all the way down to county clerk and county treasurer. All of these executive branch elections have not served to democratize government administrations, but to politicize them.
Who the heck are these people and, more importantly, why the heck are we voting for them? We don’t vote for the Attorney General of United States or the Secretary of the Treasury. The president selects them. We don’t vote for Supreme Court justices; the president selects them. This is a case of excessive democracy. There really can be too much of a good thing, and too much democracy is not a good thing.
When Donald Trump was unhappy with the job his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was doing he fired him. Newly elected mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, is unhappy with the policies being implemented by his newly elected (with the help of over one million dollars from George Soros) Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg. But Adams is going to have to battle against Bragg’s extreme progressive policies for years because he can’t fire him. That means criminal justice is New York is going to be a mess. Already, nine prosecutors in the DA’s office have quit after Bragg sent a memo to staff saying his office would not be seeking prison sentences for crimes such as armed robbery, drug dealing, and burglary. It will be the inhabitants of New York City that will pay the price for this conflict between elected officials.
(As a side note, here in Texas the Travis County DA, Jose Garza, has just (February 17, 2022) indicted 19 Austin police officers for using excessive force during riots following the murder of George Floyd. Garza’s election as DA benefitted from huge donations from a George Soros backed PAC resulting in a war chest four times the size of the incumbent DA he defeated.)
Trying to figure out who to vote for is really difficult. You can search Ballotpedia or the League of Women Voters guide, but that is very time consuming. Besides, all the candidate comments and policy statements found on those sites are pablum. They sound good but probably don’t really reflect how they will act once elected. You can try and find out who endorses each candidate and base your choice on the people that back them but that is also time consuming. Most voters are not as anal/compulsive as I am about voting in elections in general and especially not for primary elections. The result can be a crap shoot, but a more likely result is that a radical candidate with a small but dedicated group of followers can more easily get elected than a mainstream candidate with wide, but tepid, support. And once elected to some obscure commissioner position, that radical’s electoral career has been launched.
All of these supposed improvements to our democracy have led, inexorably, to the increased partisan divisiveness that currently confronts us. Maybe we need to stop improving our democracy and start improving our country.
Primary elections may not be the principal cause of the current state of divisiveness we are burdened with in America, but they have certainly been a contributing factor. Replacing the proverbial smoke-filled back room crammed with party hacks picking the candidates for public office with an election by voters was considered an advance in making America more democratic. Likewise, increasing the number of executive administrative positions in the executive branch subject to election by voters was thought to be an improvement. But good intentions often have bad unintended consequences.
Primaries have allowed small extremist bases to take over what used to be “big tent” parties encompassing a wide diversity of viewpoints. And the election of executive branch department heads has created dissension within a governing administration where the department heads are not in agreement with the chief executive, as is the case in New York City. Citizens across the country are not well served by this well-intentioned but dysfunctional expansion of democracy.
The Founders never intended the United States to be so democratic. They feared that excessive democracy would lead to a dictatorship of the majority, as I detailed in my previous commentary, Cautiously Optimistic(September 29, 2021). Increasing democracy is slowly dismantling the checks and balances put in place by the Founders. And the dictatorship of the majority we are heading toward will quickly degenerate into a plain old dictatorship.
I realize that any politician or political candidate espousing a curtailment of excessive democracy would be immediately assailed as a fascist authoritarian by both the right and the left. But it will take a true patriot set America back onto the path conceived by the Founders. We can start with eliminating the plethora of executive branch elections that serve to politicize government administration at the state and local level. I want the president, governor or mayor to have the support and cooperation of the appointed administrators and the ability to fire non-cooperative appointees rather than have constant political battles with lower elected officials. And while most Americans don’t want to regress back the smoke-filled rooms of party hacks, the implementation of ranked choice voting in primary elections may blunt the ability of extremists to grab control of a political party.
It’s okay to try different things to help our democracy function better for our citizens, but when something isn’t working, we need to make the necessary changes. All the shouting about voting integrity and voter suppression has nothing to do with improving how government functions and has everything to do with trying to gain political advantage.