Morris: Primary Elections
by Leo Morris
The three major mayoral candidates in my town — the Democratic incumbent and his two chief Republican challengers — are all cheerleaders for “economic development.”
These days, that means pushing huge capital projects with too much public funding and too little private risk for the purpose of moving huge numbers of consumers around. If enough of us can be persuaded to spend enough of our money in one preferred location instead of spreading it all over town, success is declared until the next smooth-talking developer comes along.
It’s all rather dispiriting for a cautious citizen like me who would rather see his municipal leaders take an approach more informed by prosaic pragmatism. Three years after having the worst presidential choice of my lifetime, I’m faced with the prospect of having to hold my nose when voting for mayor, too.
Can’t we figure out a better way?
At the national level, I’m tempted to suggest a version of William F. Buckley’s lament that he would rather be “governed by the first 2,000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.” We could get better candidates for president (or at least no worse ones) by drawing names out of a hat than by relying on the current primary process.
That would suffice for the nation’s chief executive, since there are mechanisms and processes and plenty of checks and balances in place to keep the country humming along. But it would be far too dangerous for something as important as local government, where there must be enough money left in the till after the politicians’ wild schemes to keep the potholes filled and the police department at full force.
Longtime Indianapolis political journalist Abdul Hakim-Shabazz believes we could get better candidates and higher voter participation by going to a “consolidated nonpartisan” primary: “Candidates don’t run under a political banner, they run on their ideas or their records — that’s it. The winner would be the person who gets at least 50 percent of the vote. And if no one gets more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters would participate in a runoff, which, by the way, would take place six to eight weeks after the consolidated primary. And that’s it.”
But the more I think about that idea, the less attractive it seems.
As Hakim-Shabazz acknowledges, two-thirds of the most populous cities in the nation already use a nonpartisan system of electing their local officials, and those big urban areas aren’t exactly models of governing sanity.
Just because politicians don’t run as members of a party doesn’t mean they aren’t members of a party. Chicago, one of those big cities with nonpartisan elections, just put in office, to the delight of social justice warriors everywhere, its first African-American lesbian as mayor. But she’s also a member in good standing of the Democratic Party machine that has had a stranglehold on the Windy City forever. Whoopee.
And if a majority of voters don’t bother to learn the philosophies and positions on the issues of two candidates, how are they going to handle 10, or 15, or 20? A more intriguing idea, but perhaps less palatable in the current zeal to abandon our republican form of government for a pure democracy, would be to take the primary out of the hands of voters.
Indiana political parties already have state conventions to choose their candidates for statewide officeholders such as attorney general and treasurer. Local conventions would select mayoral and city council candidates. (City clerks should be appointed, but perhaps that’s just a personal preference saved for my dinner-table rants.)
But I can see problems with that scheme, too. Yes, it would have the benefit of putting the selection of candidates into the hands of those most interested in the process, which might marginally improve the quality. But it would give the average citizen, having not been invested in the process, one more reason not to vote in November. And it would likely widen the trust gap between public officials and those they would lead.
In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter how we select our candidates. It will always be a self-limiting pool, comprising only those people who want to hold office. That’s a certain kind of person, and all of them will have the same sort of characteristics, especially the same kind of deficiencies.
I’m probably concentrating too much on the politics and not enough on the actual governing, giving too much attention to the selection process and too little to what those we select do after they take office. That is the chief danger of a representative democracy. We elect people not to carry out the majority’s wishes but to use their best judgment.
That shouldn’t mean our job is done once we vote. It should be just beginning. It is the officials’ job to use their best judgment. It is our job to hold them accountable when we think they haven’t, not just by voting again but by going to council meetings, writing letters to the editor, marching in protest and in general making godawful pests out of ourselves.
But as the cynic says, good luck with that.
Still, I will hold my nose and vote for mayor. I don’t like where any of them stand on my biggest concern, so I will go down my list of secondary issues and choose the least objectionable candidate, just as I did in the presidential race.
But the winner won’t have heard the last from me. I can feel them quaking in their boots already.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.