Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Politics and Primary Elections

I guess I cant be the only one in the blogosphere who isn't writing about the primary election in Connecticut today. Clearly, I live on the opposite coast, so I don't have a horse in this race. I have neither contributed to nor otherwise endorsed a candidate in this election (not that it would matter to the few who actually read this). But my take on this is rather different from either what I see in the traditional press or in the blogs.

I come at this from a somewhat different perspective, having worked as a Congressional staffer many years ago, and having addressed the issue of primary elections in the context of a debate over redistricting.

I will cut to the chase here, and say up front that I think primary elections can be a great thing.

Now then, about that redistricting. The argument I often hear in favor of changing the way legislative districts are drawn is that they're too political, and that they tend to favor incumbents, or at least the party of incumbents, and few "competitive" elections. My response is that this is a good thing.

Let's take an example near to my heart: California. Let's just say for the sake of argument that half the voters in California are Republicans, and half are Democrats. If you craft the boundaries of the voting districts so that each district also has roughly half-and-half of each party, you should have "competitive" elections in all of them, with one candidate winning by a narrow margin in each district. That's very exciting if you work in the elections business, but from the perspective of those doing the voting, odds are roughly 50% that you will be disappointed in the results, no matter where you live, and roughly half the state will feel they are not properly represented.

Note that in that scenario, it doesn't actually matter which side wins a given election: just under half are unhappy, statewide. And although probability suggests that the overall outcome will be something close to half of the races going to each party, there is also the chance that due to exogenous factors (local weather conditions, scandal, national or international events, etc.), one party will win a disproportionate number of the races, meaning that the overall representation of the state is skewed, at least for that election cycle.

Now, take the other extreme. Suppose you could construct voting districts that were all pure, 100% voters of one party or the other. Half the state would unanimously elect Republicans, and the other half would unanimously elect Democrats, and in theory, everyone would feel they were being represented by someone they support. Heck, you would barely need to have elections at all...at least, not general elections.

Because here's the thing: What becomes interesting in this "pure" district case is how each party chooses the candidate that will represent it. They don't have to fret over what happens if they re-elect a senile old geezer, fearing that voters will instead choose a competent member of an opposing party. They'd just have a primary and choose another, acceptable member of their preferred party and get on with it.

Or, suppose you have someone representing you that you really, really like, except now and then (s)he does something you find really offensive? You could find someone who agrees with that representative on all the important stuff--including whatever offends you about the incumbent--and run them in a primary. The voters get to decide which is more important to them, and either way, they get someone who agrees with them at least most of the time.

OK, so this leads me directly back to Connecticut. I hear the traditional press commenting and editorializing that Ned Lamont is trying to unseat Joe Lieberman in today's primary solely because of their disagreement over the handling of the war in Iraq. And they say this like it's a bad thing. Now, from my reading it's clear that there's a lot more involved. But even if it came down to that, I still don't see what's wrong with that. If the Democratic Party in Connecticut says they want a senator who is just like Joe Lieberman except for his stand on the war, why shouldn't they elect one in the primary? That's what primaries are for. That seems far more logical than expecting them to re-elect Lieberman without even considering such an alternative. It seems highly unlikely that the large number of Connecticut voters supporting Lieberman would choose to vote for a Republican candidate if given the choice of Lieberman or a Republican. So why not let them choose a more palatable Democrat?

To me, the thing that's striking about this particular race is not that it's an unreasonable sort of race, but rather that such races are so rare? Who represents you in the legislature is incredibly important, too important to just settle for someone with the right general leanings or the right party label. Voters should find the candidate who most closely mirrors their views and whose judgment they trust, and elect that person. And if that means treading on the toes of an incumbent, so be it.

OK, enough rambling. It's just fun to see a real election now and then, instead of a race where people find themselves forced to choose for the least of the evils presented to them. Connecticut could do worse than to re-elect Joe Lieberman. But they can also do better, and I have a feeling they will.

1 comment:

Laura E. Goodin said...

Quite a large number of people here in Australia comment on the cumbersome US electoral system. Frankly, I'm glad it's so convoluted and cumbersome: makes it much more trouble for dictators to sweep to power (although not, perhaps, impossible, not that I'm making any accusations mind you, I'm just saying is all).