Primarily convention, or conventionally primary? Selection methods in VA’s GOP also divide.

In Virginia, the GOP is heading into their 2013 Convention for the purpose of deciding their nominees for State offices, specifically the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General. I managed to make it to the last one in 2009 but will not be going to this year’s. That prospect is a bit disappointing to me and it’s raised the matter of how we Virginia Republicans nominate our candidates. Being that I’m “outside looking in” this year, I thought it would be helpful to examine the pro’s and con’s of the methods available.

A timely find has been a pair of posts over at Virginia Politics, one written by Adam Frost advocating the use of primaries in all cases, and one by Andrew Schwartz asserting that conventions are not only perfectly fine, but are more in keeping with overall fairness and stated Republican values than are primaries. Both are excellent reads and offer intelligent arguments in both directions.

I’ve generally been friendly to the concept of conventions, especially here in Virginia, largely due to unmitigated flaws in the whole concept of running a primary where the membership in a given party by a specific voter cannot be established. It is against our constitution here in the Commonwealth, I’m told, for the government to ask for or record details pertaining to membership in political parties. Unlike, say, Ohio, we in the Old Dominion register to vote but do not declare membership in a party when we do. The state government, therefore, knows who’s registered to vote but not their affiliation. This, of course, makes it hard to determine who is and is not a member of the Republican Party when they show up at the poles. What that means, in practical terms, is that the pole workers have to ask you on primary day which ballot you want and take your word for it that you’re going to support the winner of that ballot. This, in my view, has a fatal flaw. The nominee for the Republican Party should be decided by members of that party. It should not be influenced by members of other parties who simply show up and cast a ballot nor should it be influenced by people who are merely interested in the Party’s decisions but who do not commit to membership. Open primaries such as the ones they hold here in Virginia do not address this fatal flaw and, in my opinion, should not be used.

Frost’s problems with conventions override that concern even if he does acknowledge it later in his article:

Nominations by convention disenfranchise the vast majority of the party’s members:

They disenfranchise people who are out of state on the day of the convention.

Specifically, they disenfranchise the very military personnel that put their lives on the line in foreign lands to defend our republic.

Conventions also disenfranchise people who are home but who very understandably don’t want to take the time and expense to go to a city potentially hundreds of miles away to spend an entire weekend being bombarded with political candidates, tactics, messages, signs, speeches, etc. ad nauseam.

Some of us are political junkies who enjoy that sort of thing; most people aren’t.  And rank-and-file members of a party should not have to spend a weekend at a convention in order to have a voice in selecting their party’s candidates.

Ah, the “conventions disenfranchise party members who don’t/can’t go to the convention” argument. Well, I can dispense with the one part of that argument immediately: if the price of having a direct say in the party’s decision is to spend a weekend in Richmond and someone doesn’t think having that say is worth the time and travel, whose fault is it that they don’t get to have the say? They made a cost/benefit decision and came up with the notion that having their vote count in the decision was worth less to them than whatever they planned to do instead. That’s their call but it’s hardly incumbent upon all the rest of the membership to open themselves up to the issues with open primaries to accommodate people who don’t value their vote as highly as others do. This is in marked contrast to the people who can’t go for reasons of work schedule, health issues, transportation matters, etc. These are the people who would certainly be willing to spend the time, but they have other obligations that supersede the convention. Regrettable, yes. I, myself, and in that group this year. But, again, is that a significant enough concern of the party in general to change the format to an open primary and incur the issues in doing so?

Schwartz raises an interesting question, though: Is this really disenfranchisement?

Opponents complain of disfranchisement in a convention, but there cannot be disfranchisement if there is no election. There can be no disfranchisement when there is no right to disfranchise. Contrary to the impression of primary advocates, selecting a candidate to run for office on behalf of a corporate party is not, nor has it ever been, a civil right. It is a privilege granted by the corporation to its members in accordance with its constitution and bylaws. To disfranchise is to deprive an individual “the right of voting in public elections,” and an election is “the selection of one person from a specified class to discharge certain duties in a state, corporation, or society” (Black’s Law Dictionary, emphasis mine).

A primary is not an civil election — it is a nomination. The nominee holds no authority or office over any portion of the population of the state in that capacity, and though the current primary system is funded publicly, the results have no legal effect upon the public.

Here is the crux of the situation overlooked by many who oppose conventions. Unlike voting in civil elections, there is absolutely no right to a vote within a political party. Parties are, as Schwartz points out early in his article, private corporations. The ability of members to vote on any concern of the party at all is a matter of a privilege bestowed by the corporation’s rules, not some inherent natural right. This highlights even more the problem with using a decision method that allows people who are not members of the party to cast ballots.

A far more interesting point Schwartz brings up is the inherent unfairness in primaries at all because of who’s paying for the primary:

The merits of a convention — under current law – are not about that. They’re about the influence of the state over a private corporation, and the state’s subsidization of that corporation at the taxpayer’s expense.

In case you didn’t know, the Republican Party of Virginia (and the Democratic Party of Virginia) are private corporations. They have a charter, they have a business plan, they have office holders within the corporation, they have to keep track of their finances just like any other business.

They are a private club, and if you want to be a part of their club, you play by their rules.

However, what we see today is these private clubs being treated as entities of the state — protected and shielded to some extent from the political market forces. It’s not the primary process that does this. It’s the state PAYING for the primary process that does this. Republicans and Democrats hold a huge advantage over other parties in that they are all but guaranteed that every taxpayer in Virginia will finance the selection of their corporate ambassadors.

Emphasis mine. Primaries are run and paid for by the State Board of Elections, which effectively means they’re paid for by t
he taxpayers. So, the Republicans get a primary and the Democrats get a primary. When’s the last time you heard about the Green Party getting one? Or, for that matter, the Socialist or Communist parties? Certainly not the Tea Party. So why would we Republicans, the party of smaller government and lower taxes, advocate a method of handling our internal business that puts the burden on the taxpayers and hands over the control of the process to the state government?

If we want to have primaries, then we should step up and pay for them ourselves, run them ourselves, and secure them ourselves. We handle the membership roles, so we can most certainly permit or deny any specific individual participation if they’re not a member in good standing. This also frees us up to use other methods of vote collection, even handling the primary online and leaving the polling open for longer than 10 or 16 hours. If we’re paying the freight, we get to decide how big the trucks are and where they drive.

Whatever issues conventions have, they have advantages over open primaries that, in aggregate, outweigh the problems. I don’t get to have a direct say in who wins the nomination, yes. But I’m willing to accept that this year in order to maintain our process integrity and our values’ expression.