American Government Lecture Eight

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American Government

Eighth Lecture – Political Parties & Voting & Elections

Introduction

We are finished with the topic of the media, but it will impact the remainder of this course just as it influences everything in politics. It is impossible to address an issue fully without mentioning the media.

First we will complete our discussion of political parties, one of the few powers that can sometimes withstand media pressure. Then we discuss voting and elections. Afterwards, we have some fun looking at the presidential election of 2004.

Political Parties (continued from last class)

Politics is like a team sport for many people. They put on their helmets and knee-pads, enlist people on their side, and then attack the other side. Or they defend against an initiative by the other side.

It is difficult for a solitary voice or one-person army to win alone. It would be like one man trying to be his own football team. He may be the greatest athlete in the world, but he would lose against a team of 11 every time. However, one person can always mean the difference between victory and defeat, no matter how large the teams are.

Political parties are the teams in government. Critics might call them “gangs”. The players work to help each other, and oppose players on the other team (the other political party). It is “us versus them.”

The benefits of teamwork are obvious. It is much easier to pass legislation when a party boss can call members of his party and tell them how to vote. When party members disobey the boss or “leadership”, then they are disciplined to set an example.

Phil Gramm was a Democratic congressman from Texas who disobeyed his leadership and voted in favor of Republican Ronald Reagan’s economic legislation in the early 1980s. When the Democratic leadership disciplined him by removing him from a key committee position, he fought back.

Phil Gramm resigned his seat and called for a special election to fill his own vacancy. He then switched parties and ran as a Republican. Many voters do not like political parties and Phil Gramm won in a landslide for his courage. Later, he turned his popularity into winning a U.S. Senate seat for Texas. He even attracted support for the Republican nomination for president in 1996. (Ronald Reagan himself was once a Democrat who changed and became a Republican.)

But Phil Gramm's experience is an exception. Not every state is like Texas, and many candidates are unwilling to switch political parties. After all, they spent their entire life being a member of one party. It is not easy to change and admit error, and abandon lifelong friendships. Not even Senator Jeffords of Vermont could switch from Republican to Democrat when he rebelled against President Bush in 2001. Instead, Senator Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent.

Political parties, as big as they have become, are still controlled by only a handful of people. The “smoke-filled room” is a term used to describe a few powerful people smoking cigars who make all the important political decisions. President Truman made decisions about who would control Europe after World War II while playing cards with a few buddies.

Despite the mass media, television and internet, there is still a great deal of truth to this image of politics. On the Republican side, the Bush family and a few close advisors have made major decisions, such as invading Iraq and passing the education bill “No Child Left Behind”. On the Democratic side, Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton are thought to control many decisions. Some feel that they may even install Hillary Clinton as the presidential or nominee for the Democrats in 2004, even though she has said she is not running.

So how much “teamwork” there really is in a political party is debatable. Perhaps an “army”, with a few generals and many soldiers, describes political parties better. After all, efforts to capture office are called “campaigns”. But as bad as political parties can be, they are the only thing stopping compete control of politics by the media. For that we can be grateful.

At the top of the party structure is the Republican National Committee, which raises enormous sums of money. It then distributes that money to state parties, and it provides money to assist in political campaigns that it supports. (The same is true for the Democratic National Committee.) Candidates disfavored by those who control the Republican National Committee are unable to obtain financial support. Only individually wealthy candidates, such as Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois in 1998, are able to run and be elected to statewide office over the opposition of the national party leadership. Nearly everyone is afraid to disobey the party leadership.

Voting

Most citizens 18 and over can vote in America. Some states prohibit persons convicted of felonies from voting (do you agree with that rule)?

Millions, however, do not bother to vote. In presidential elections every four years, only about half of Americans vote. In non-presidential elections, the percent who vote is usually smaller. Next week, November 6th, is election day in New Jersey, but relatively few will take the time to vote.

School board elections typically have very low “turnout”, which refers to the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote. Often these elections are decided by a few hundred votes, or less.

It is easy to find friends or relatives who do not vote, and you can ask them why. It can be laziness, or a feeling that their votes do not matter. Elections are rarely decided by one vote (though sometimes they are, to the chagrin of those who did not vote). It takes time and effort to vote, and some feel they do not receive anything in return. A popular sentiment, particularly among the young, is that it does not matter which side is elected. But often it does matter a great deal.

It is necessary to register to vote before actually voting, and that can be an annoying obstacle. A large percentage of Americans move each year, and they can only vote if they register at their new address. State laws typically prohibit registration close to Election Day. Rather, a citizen may have to register 30 days or more prior to an election in order to be eligible to vote. Some states use voter registration as the basis for ordering people to serve on juries, and some avoid voting in order to escape jury duty. But that excuse does not work in most places, as drivers license registration is now typically used.

Voter registration in most states consists of providing your name and address and listing yourself as a “Republican”, “Democrat”, “Independent” or a third party. This is typically public information, available to anyone who wants to look you up. In some states, like Virginia, voters do not register with a party affiliation that is available to the public. When conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who lives in Virginia, was appointed to the Supreme Court, no one could find out his party affiliation. Do you think this should be public information?

Those who have busy schedules or travel may find it inconvenient to go to a polling booth on Election Day, possibly wait in line, simply to cast a ballot in a typical election. But being busy is not a good excuse either; there is rarely a waiting line to vote anymore. Absentee ballots are available for those who will be out of town.

Why isn’t voting made more convenient? There are many good reasons why voting is not made easier:

1. Voter fraud is an enormous problem, and always has been. There is very little checking of records, and some areas of the country (like Chicago) are notorious for having votes cast in the names of people who are dead. The easier it is to vote, the more fraud there will be. In Oregon, citizens can now simply mail in their vote without ever appearing at a polling place. This system was designed to increased turnout above 80% in 2000. How does anyone know who really filled out the ballot?

2. Easier voting means more voting by uniformed people. If someone won’t take the trouble to go to a polling booth, then it’s unlikely they will bother to learn the issues either. What’s the point in encouraging uninformed citizens to vote? It’s difficult to see what value they add to the process.

3. Easier voting procedures may not boost turnout over the long term. People alienated by the political system will not vote regardless of how easy it is. Certain religious groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, do not believe in participating in the political process. That will not change.

The debacle in Florida in 2000, when a few hundred votes decided who would be president, woke up many Americans to what can happen when they do not vote. By 2002, conservatives in Florida heard the message and reelected Jeb Bush in a surprisingly large landslide. The citizens turned out in droves to prevent a repeat of the prior election.

Elections

There are two major types of elections: the “primary” and the “general election.” Each state holds its primary many months prior to its final or general election. The primary chooses the nominees of the political parties who will be on the ballot in the general election.

Except for school board and special elections, the general election is always the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This is the day the president is elected every four years; this is when congressmen are elected every two years.

New Jersey and Virginia hold elections every year on this day, even odd-numbered years like 2003 and 2007, but most states only hold elections in even-numbered years. The theory is that New Jersey and Virginia hold yearly elections keep the political machines working all the time.

To be on the ballot in November, a candidate has to win his party’s nomination in the prior “primary”. There are two types of primaries: “open” and “closed”.

In an open primary, any voter can vote in a party’s election to choose the nominee. For example, a Democrat could go to the polling booth and request a Republican ballot to pick the Republican nominee for the general election.

New Hampshire has an open primary system. Every four years, it holds the first presidential primary in the country. It insists on being the first, in order to maximize its influence. In the past few elections, Iowa has tried to steal this limelight by holding caucuses earlier (Jan. 19th), in which party members travel to special meetings (in frigid weather) to vote on candidates. Because these are typically party diehards rather than the general public, this has not been as influential. This year, top Democratic contenders Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark have announced they will skip Iowa entirely. In 2000, John McCain also skipped it but then won the primary in New Hampshire.

Because New Hampshire is an open primary, Independents can cross-over into the Democratic and Republican primaries and pick their candidate. Many flocked to the Republican side in 2000 and voted for John McCain, to the chagrin of the Republican Party regulars who favored George W. Bush. McCain then beat Bush in the Republican primary in New Hampshire by receiving a large number of votes by citizens registered as Independents.

Closed primaries do not permit this. They restrict their primaries to voters who are registered in their party. For example, closed Republican primaries only permit registered Republicans to vote; closed Democratic primaries only permit registered Democrats to vote.

George W. Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000 because he easily beat McCain in the closed primaries, which many states (like New York) have. McCain was able to win after New Hampshire in a few other open primary states in the North, like Michigan, but McCain could not win closed primaries or some open primaries in the South, like South Carolina. Bush won the nomination and the presidency despite losing the first primary in New Hampshire.

That is unusual. New Hampshire has historically been a good predictor of who will win the White House. However, Clinton also won the presidency despite losing in New Hampshire. He was besieged by scandals and beaten there by former Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas. But Clinton was much stronger in the South and won big there.

Will the candidates who win New Hampshire be able to win the South?

Open v. Closed Primaries

Many debate whether primaries should be “open” or “closed” and states disagree among themselves. “Closed” primaries favor the party regulars, while “open” primaries allows non-party votes like independents to exert influence over the nominating process.

In some states, like Michigan, the Republican Party went to an open primary system as a way of attracting new members. Michigan is a heavily unionized state, the location of the Big Three automakers (GM, Ford, and Chrysler). Union voters have been overwhelmingly Democratic, and the Republican Party looked for ways to bring some over to the Republican column.

An open primary offers that opportunity. It enables Democrats to vote for Republican candidates, even if just in primary. The idea is that by allowing Democrats to vote that way in primaries, then they will begin to vote that way in general elections also. It helps break the almost religious devotion that some families have to the Democratic Party.

However, others have sought to open up primaries in order to enable “moderates” to do better. In California, moderate Republican Tom Campbell pushed a referendum to allow any citizen to vote for any candidate in any primary. Known as the “blanket” primary, this allowed citizens to vote for a Republican candidate for governor, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant government, and a Green (environmental) candidate for Attorney General. The Republican and Democratic Parties sued to stop this, because it diluted the political parties and gave independent voters enormous influence over the nominating process.

I helped write a amicus brief before the Supreme Court to invalidate this referendum based on freedom of association, a right implied in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that a political party has the constitutional right to limit its primaries to its own registered voters. Democratic Party of California v. Jones (2000). As a result, conservative Bill Simon won an upset victory over moderate Richard Riordan in the Republican party gubernatorial (governor) primary in 2002.

Presidential Election 2007

It is fun to discuss future elections, and debate who will win. The outcome may affect our nation’s future. As we have discussed, polls are an imperfect predictor. But let’s start with some numbers in sizing up the Democratic primary, as of Oct. 31, 2007:[1]

By the end of March, less than two months after New Hampshire, the vast majority of Democratic votes will be cast and the nominee will likely be chosen. That is because of the “front-loading” of the nomination process, whereby states moved their primaries earlier and earlier to be more influential in the process. You can see why candidates try so hard to win in New Hampshire. Every newspaper (there’s the media, again) will carry the picture and headline for the winner in New Hampshire. Momentum is then very helpful, fanned by the media, in carrying the winner to victories in other states. South Carolina and Arizona hold their primaries one week after New Hampshire, on February 3rd. Also on February 3rd: Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and North Dakota. Next on February 10th: District of Columbia, Tennessee and Virginia. When is your state's presidential primary?

The Republican nomination is still very much up for grabs:[2]

Issues

  1. Should voting registration and party affiliation be public information?
  2. Do you favor making voting easier?
  3. Do you favor open or closed primaries?

References

  1. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_2008__1/2008_presidential_election/daily_presidential_tracking_poll
  2. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/election_2008__1/2008_presidential_election/daily_presidential_tracking_poll