Senate bill would emasculate political parties in Nevada

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A bill has been introduced in Carson City that would jettison the current Democrat and Republican primaries in favor of an open primary system, in which anyone could sign up as a candidate and anyone could vote for anyone of any party or no party. The top two vote getters would advance to the General Election, even if both are affiliated with the same party or no party.

The bill would make the two major political parties irrelevant in actually selecting their own candidates and reduce them to the role of merely endorsing candidates.

Senate Bill 103 was introduced by Republican state Sen. James Settelmeyer of Minden.

Settelmeyer told the media that some of his constituents were upset that they could not vote in the primary because they were nonpartisan.

As of December, 39 percent of active Nevada voters were Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 28 percent nonpartisan or members of some other minor party.

The whole concept of partisan party politics is to facilitate persons of like-minded political persuasions to organize and select candidates that promise to advance a given philosophy of governance — though in recent years the efficacy of this proposition has been suspect in Nevada with self-styled conservatives voting for history making tax hikes.

Now, I’ve never been in favor of forcing all taxpayers, including nonpartisans and members of other parties, to pay for the primaries the state puts on for the Democrat and Republican parties. Let those parties pay for their primaries or caucuses or smoke-filled backrooms.

But the open primary system makes it more difficult to weigh the various candidates based on past allegiances and opens the opportunity for Fifth Column candidates to claim to be what they are not. Faux Democrats or Republicans could flood the ballot and split the vote for a party’s real selection.

In Louisiana in the 1970s Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards hatched a foolproof plan to end the Republican Party in that state. He pushed through an open primary under the assumption Republicans would not make it to the General Election, due to heavy Democratic majorities in the urban areas of the state, meaning two Democrats would face off in November.

But the best laid plans oft gang awry. In the next election there were seven Democrats on the gubernatorial ballot, one nonpartisan and one Republican. When the smoke cleared, Republican Dave Treen was elected governor, leading the way for the state to transition to Republican domination.

At least the open primary is better than letting anyone and everyone decide on Election Day in which primary they will vote.

Think of it this way. Political parties are like brands. Without brands who knows what adulterated product you are getting.

Politics is messy. Open primaries just make it messier.

At the turn of the previous century Baltimore’s notoriously curmudgeonly newspaper columnist, H.L. Mencken, pined for more realism in politics:

“I can imagine a political campaign purged of all the current false assumptions and false pretenses — a campaign in which, on election day, the voters went to the polls clearly informed that the choice between them was not between an angel and a devil, a good man and a bad man, but between two frank go-getters, the one perhaps excelling at beautiful and nonsensical words and the other at silent and prehensile deeds — the one a chautauqua orator and the other the porch-climber. There would be, in that choice, something free, candid and exhilarating. The Buncome would be adjourned. The voter would make his selection in the full knowledge of all the facts, as he makes his selection between two heads of cabbage, or two evening papers, or two brands of chewing tobacco. Today he chooses his rulers as he buys bootleg whiskey, never knowing precisely what he is getting, only certain that it is not what it pretends to be. The Scotch may turn out to be wood alcohol or it may turn out to be gasoline; in either case it is not Scotch. How much better if it were plainly labeled, for wood alcohol and gasoline both have their uses — higher uses, indeed that Scotch. The danger is that the swindled and poisoned consumer, despairing of ever avoiding them when he doesn’t want them, and actually enforce his own prohibition. The danger is that the hopeless voters, forever victimized by his false assumption about politicians, may in the end gather such ferocious indignation that he will abolish them teetotally and at one insane sweep, and so cause government by the people, for the people and with the people to perish from this earth.”

In 2014, only 59 percent of those eligible to vote in Nevada even bothered to register. Of those who registered, only 46 percent went to the polls in November, meaning 73 percent of those eligible to vote did not choose any brand of bootleg whiskey.

 

Bring back the smoke-filled backrooms

Republican caucus goers line up in February. (AP photo by John Locher)

The editorialists at the Las Vegas Sun never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to get it right — even when it is staring them in the face.

Today’s screed is a rant about how bad the presidential caucuses of both parties were and how lawmakers should switch to presidential primaries.

The editorialists postulate that such gatherings made sense years ago when people actually talked to each other but now they are so outmoded and inconvenient and frustrating.

At one point they even skated past the real answer: “In fact, nothing in the U.S. Constitution extends to citizens a role in how the parties promote their candidates for the White House. They are party affairs, pure and simple, and it’s up to the parties in how inclusive to be. The only guarantee to citizens is the right to vote in November.”

But then they plow on past the real answer to their comfortable stance of government has the solution: “Nevada’s state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, should be able to agree on this, and bring back the primary elections that everyone embraces.”

No, lawmakers are the last people who should be telling the parties how to choose their candidates. The parties are private entities that should choose their candidates in any way they see fit — privately funded caucuses, primaries, smoke-filled backrooms or “American Idol”-style voting via text message or arm-wrestling competition.

Nevada has party primaries scheduled for June 14 for everything except president, a full month before the major parties’ national conventions.

But even that is wrong. The state doesn’t conduct primaries for the Libertarian, American Independent, Green or Communist parties, why do it for just two?

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel poses a rhetorical question about how a contested Republican convention would mean a return to the smoke-filled backroom bargaining of the past and lets Wisconsin conservative activist Eric O’Keefe answer.

“And what’s wrong with that process?” O’Keefe replies. “It worked well. Those rooms were full of engaged citizens — people who had an interest in the success of their party and their country. They vetted the nominations, they imposed accountability, they shook up the system.”

I reached a similar conclusion three years ago when lawmakers in Carson City were contemplating a bill to keep Nevada “First in the West” by establishing major political party presidential primaries in January of an election year instead of caucuses.

“No one, but no one has stepped back and asked the one vital question: What business is it of the Democrat-dominated state Legislature as to how or when any political party nominates its candidates?” I asked.

Not only is the Constitution silent on political parties, as the Sun so notes, our Founders were actually disdainful of political parties.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789, “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

In his farewell address in 1796 George Washington said:

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Sounds rather prescient considering the current state of the two major parties.

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other,” John Adams wrote in 1780. “This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Strassel points out another problem with legislatively mandated party selection: “Why should Republicans bow down, for instance, to the results of state-mandated open primaries that allow liberal and independent voters to bum-rush what is supposed to be a private poll?”

In Nevada Republicans had to register prior to the day of the caucus, but Democrats allowed same-day registration.

Even the candidates are free agents rather than party loyalists.

Political parties in Nevada have become largely irrelevant. Candidates pull on a cloak of party identity and self-select. The same for party members who simply sign up with the registrar of voters and instantly become party members without ever attending a meeting of the membership or voting on a platform or even stating a political philosophy.

Gov. Brian Sandoval did not go to the Republican Party leadership in 2010 and say Jim Gibbons needed to be ousted. No, he put his name on the ballot, ran a campaign dominated by paid consultants and television advertising and fliers in the mail. He was elected by nominal Republicans, and is governing as a nominal Republican.

The Republican-majority lawmakers in 2015 passed the biggest tax increase in history, just like Democrats would have.

Perhaps Nevada should borrow page from Louisiana.

Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, during his term in office but prior to his term in prison, plotted to eliminate the Republican Party by going to an open primary system. When the smoke cleared, the first open primary governor was Dave Treen, a Republican.

Today in Louisiana, the Republican Party holds the House, Senate, though the current governor is a Democrat.

Let the parties choose their candidates and endorse them. Open the primary ballot to all comers and advance the top two vote-earners to November’s ballot.

Ramirez cartoon