San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler’s well intentioned proposal to remove central committee elections from primary ballots would centralize political power in the hands of party insiders, and ultimately undermine the power of the average voter to select candidates for the general election.
I have interacted with Ms. Seiler in the past while monitoring the ballot counting process, so I can attest that she operates the Registrar in a professional and transparent manner. I am certain she is acting in good faith, and she raises a valid point that the current system subsidizes internal party elections.
However, the passage of Proposition 14—the open primary initiative—has already thrown the nominating process into disarray. Prop 14 provides that the top two vote recipients in the primary—regardless of their party affiliations—will appear in the general election. In other words, voters in the general election may have to “choose” between two candidates from the same party. Predictably, the parties are scrambling to devise internal means of selecting their candidates.
The California Republican Party, for example, voted at its recent convention to conduct an internal mail-in primary. This pie-in-the-sky idea will likely prove that political parties lack the expertise, manpower, and funding to conduct large-scale elections. It is far more likely that Republicans will scrap this unrealistic plan, and instead consolidate the endorsement power among a relatively small number of party insiders.
When push comes to shove, county central committee members will likely play a strong—if not dominating—role in selecting the party’s official nominees prior to the primary. This vests central committees with a tremendous new power, so voters have a strong interest in (finally) paying attention to their central committee elections.
Unfortunately, Ms. Seiler’s proposal would largely remove voters’ ability to elect their central committee representatives. The same concerns plaguing the party endorsement of primary nominees also apply here: do we choose an impractical mail-in process, or vest party insiders with even greater power? Neither option sounds very good, but the mail-in election is too impractical.
Therefore, under Prop 14 and the Seiler proposal, party insiders would most likely select central committee members, and those central committee members would then select their parties’ official primary nominees. This would afford voters no direct control over which candidate receives their party’s endorsement (and monetary support) heading into the primary.
Furthermore, political parties are not like the Kiwanis Club (as Ms. Seiler asserted), at least according to the Supreme Court. It has held that a party privately conducting a primary election may not discriminate against voters based upon race. See Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953). The Court found that the political party performs a public function, so the 15th Amendment (and presumably other restrictions upon government) apply to private political parties.
I commend Ms. Seiler’s commitment to efficiency, and I invite her to propose a cost sharing plan that keeps party elections on the primary ballot. But ultimately, political parties play an integral role in our political system. They will adapt to any attempt to marginalize them, most likely at the expense of the average voter’s power and influence. Our electoral system thrives on transparency, so removing party elections from the public eye would be a step in the wrong direction.