The Direct Primary, Wisconsin, and Party Machines
My Country – The Direct Primary
On May 23, 1903, Wisconsin proposed a direct primary law, which voters approved in 1904. Other states had made attempts to regulate primaries but Wisconsin became the first on a state-wide level. Robert La Follette led the fight in Wisconsin. He began to fight against the political machine in 1894. He called the political convention system a corrupting influence. As Justice Douglas wrote, “he carried the fight to the people, shouting that the party convention served no purpose than ‘to give respectable form to political robbery.'”
Why Was The Direct Primary Necessary?
Prior to the direct primary, caucuses were the preferred form of choosing a candidate. Across the Wisconsin state line, in my home state and home county, of Cook County, Illinois, reform showed why direct primaries were necessary. Of the 723 delegates in 1896, 84 had criminal records, 17 had been tried for homicide, and 46 had served prison terms. Political bosses manipulated convention-goers as they controlled their political machines.
For example, Charles Evan Hughes, before becoming a Supreme Court justice, worked as Governor of New York to start direct primaries. Hughes argued that direct primaries would lessen the impact of special interests. Sound familiar? But the New York state legislature had different ideas.In the middle of a large scandal, he failed to accomplish his goal. In 1910, Senate Majority Leader Jotham P. Allds had accepted a bribe in exchange for killing a bill nine years earlier, when he served in the Assembly. Within weeks, an investigation found proof of far-reaching corruption. But the legislature put into place by the political bosses could not argue against the hand that fed them. Again, sound familiar? And instead of losing a re-election bid for Governor, Hughes received the lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
What Comes Next?
By 1917, all but four states had a form of direct primary. However, no one seemed happy with the process in 2016. Both Democrats and Republicans argued that the direct primary system was broken. It doesn’t take much work to look for the word “rigged” in most articles about the 2016 election.
But what exactly did they claim? Similarly to the smoke-filled room, supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders argued that the party elite chose the candidate. Like the special interests of the past, they used the same imagery and concerns. However, he just received fewer votes. I couldn’t do any analysis better than 538.
However, the primary system does have its flaws. Certain states go early. The elections have become national referendum instead of state-by-state decisions. Money pours in from every angle. Strange rules about how the delegates are apportioned affect both parties. The worst superhero ever the Super-Delegate plagues the Democratic Party.
Yet, 100 years ago, we didn’t have any say in any of this. Let’s continue reforms and build parties around that. If we want each vote to count, caucuses need to end. If we want more people to vote, we need to extend early voting or change our elections to a weekend or two-day endeavor. We need to ensure that Voter ID laws do not destroy our democracy.