Friday, April 18, 2008

Problems With Indiana's Primary Voting System

On May 5, 2008 [correction: May 6, 2008], I, along with other citizens of Indiana, will have the chance to go to the polls to vote in our State's primary election. For the first time in a long time, Hoosier votes may actually help decide who the Democratic presidential nominee is. That's good. Unfortunately, another major problem continues to plague Indiana's primary system and my Congressional district (the 5th) is the perfect example.

Indiana supposedly has an "open" primary. On primary election day, a voter can choose whether to vote on a Democratic or Republican (or, I suppose, Libertarian) ballot. The voter tells the poll workers which ballot to load in the voting booth and that ballot determines which candidates may be chosen. It appears that when Indiana says that its primary is "open" what it really means is that from year to year a voter can determine party affiliation for primary voting purposes. But, in fact, the primary is not as "open" as this designation might appear.

Indiana's 5th Congressional district is presently represented (quite badly) by Rep. Dan Burton, who is widely regarded as one of the worst Representatives in Congress. This is the man who shot a pumpkin to see if Hillary Clinton could have murdered Vince Foster and who missed crucial national security votes because he was on a golf junket (in fact, he has missed every Congressional vote between 2001 and 2007 that occurred during the Bob Hope Pro-Am golf tournament in which Burton is a regular participant). Yet, Rep. Burton continues to be elected year after year, in one of the most heavily Republican districts in the country.

So what's the problem? This year presents the perfect example. In November, the Republican nominee will likely win the 5th Congressional district seat with roughly 80% of the vote. I'm not sure if the district is really 80% Republican or if Democrats just don't bother to show up. Nevertheless, because of the huge disparity in party affiliation, the real election takes place in the primary when voters determine which Republic candidate will win ... er ... run in the fall. This year, Rep. Burton is actually confronted by a legitimate challenger. Dr. John McGoff is clearly a conservative Republican and, while I would certainly prefer a Democrat to represent me in Congress, I would also clearly prefer Dr. McGoff to represent me instead of Rep. Burton, if for no other reason than I believe that Dr. McGoff has more integrity than Rep. Burton. However, I can't make that choice. Why not? Because I also want to select between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

When I go into the voting booth, I will have to choose either a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot; I cannot choose a ballot listing all available candidates for the particular elected office. So, if I want to choose a presidential candidate (and I do want my voice to be heard in selecting either Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton), then I have to choose a Democratic ballot. But if I choose a Democratic ballot, then my choices for Congress will be limited to the Democratic challengers who will be slaughtered in November. In other words, I have to vote for a sure loser and don't have the opportunity to really select who will represent me in Congress.

Now, some may say that this is fair; after all, shouldn't it be Republicans who choose who will represent them in the fall election? While this sounds right, intuitively, that logic falls short for several reasons. First, let's remember that the State of Indiana, not the parties, are conducting and financing this election. If the parties wanted to set their own rules and determine who could vote, they could do so, but, in such an event, the State should have nothing to do with the election (including paying for it or using State officials). That is not the situation in Indiana.

Moreover, this approach tends to increase the viability of candidates that position themselves to the extremes, rather than those who moderate their views. Why? Simple: A moderate voter, one whose viewpoints are toward the center of the political spectrum, will have to choose which party to register with to vote for that party's candidates, but in so doing, will not be able to choose candidates of the other party who might also appeal to that voter. For example, say that 4 people are running for Congress, a liberal Democrat, a moderate Democrat, a moderate Republican, and a conservative Republican. And, let's say that 4 people are running for Governor (with the same breakdown of positions). Clearly the liberal Democrats will vote for one of the Democratic candidates and the conservative Republicans will vote for one of the Republican candidates. But moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans are stuck. What if the moderate Democrat prefers the moderate Democrat for Congress but the moderate Republican for Governor? That isn't an option. So, in that example, the moderate Republican gubernatorial candidate can't get the support of moderate Democrats (or moderate Republicans who may prefer the moderate Democrat Congressional candidate) and, in this way, the more liberal and conservative candidates are likely to get increased support while the support in the middle is split (or simply not available).

This year, many moderate Republicans in the 5th District may choose to vote in the Democratic primary because they want a Democrat (or don't want John McCain) to be the next President (I know two people who fit this description precisely). Yet those moderate Republicans, many of whom will likely vote for no other Democrats in the fall, will not have their voices heard in the selection of the Republican candidate for Congress who will, in all likelihood, represent them after the November election.

As another concrete example, consider last spring's Mayoral and City Council primary election. I wanted to choose a Democratic candidate for City Council (both for my district and for the at large seats). But I also wanted to vote for the incumbent Republican Mayoral candidate, Jim Brainard. So, I had to decide whether to vote on the Democratic ballot or Republican ballot. I chose the Republican ballot so that I could vote for Mayor Brainand. Even though I usually consider myself a Democrat, I wanted Mayor Brainard to beat the other Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate and, in fact, I voted for Mayor Brainard last fall. But, once again, by choosing the Republican ballot, I was not able to make my voice heard as to which candidates I preferred for the Democratic City Council election.

Voters should choose candidates, not parties.

Another problem with Indiana's approach is that it, essentially, renders many votes totally worthless. As I mentioned previously, this fall, the Republican Congressional nominee will almost certainly win in the 5th District. So, on May 5, I can vote for the Democratic Congressional candidate of my choice, knowing that the chosen candidate has, essentially, no chance of winning in the fall (which is one of the reasons that no viable Democratic candidates seek the office). So what was the value of my vote? By contrast, again as I mentioned before, I would much rather be represented by Dr. McGoff than Rep. Burton (even if I disagree with Dr. McGoff on most of the issues) so, if I had the option, I would likely vote for Dr. McGoff; after all, the Republican primary is, for all intents and purposes, the election.

In areas with vibrant two-party systems, where the outcomes differ from year to year, this issue may be somewhat less important (then again, I can certainly see an argument for the contrary viewpoint). However, in areas like Carmel, where the primary election is almost always determinative of the fall result (why do we even bother to vote in November?), then forcing a voter to pick party affiliation does not truly serve the interests of the candidates, the voters, or democracy.

It seems to me that on primary election day, I should be able to walk into a voting booth without having to tell the election officials, many of whom are my neighbors, which party I am supporting. If I want them to know who I support I can, but it shouldn't be a requirement before I vote. I don't have to tell them who I'm voting for, so why do I have to tell them which party I'm supporting? Then, once in the voting booth, I should be able to choose the candidate that I prefer for each office. If I want a Democratic President, a Republican Congressman, and a Democratic Governor, I should be able to make that choice.


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At Friday, April 18, 2008 3:22:00 PM , Blogger Charles said...

The primary system works the same way in Missouri, and I'm guessing many Republicans feel the same way as you do with regard to the City of St. Louis mayoral race, which is generally seen as a foregone victory for the Democrat.

In fact, there were some voices that said that with the Republican Presidential nomination wrapped up so early, a lot of Hillary Clinton's "support" in the later primaries, a lot of what has allowed her to continue her campaign and claim a resurgence, was actually due to Republicans who were voting Democrat in their states' primaries, because they'd rather see McCain go up against Clinton than Obama in November.

I don't know that there's any hard evidence for this, or even much anecdotal evidence.

And I would modify your statement, "Voters should choose candidates, not parties" to "Voters should choose candidates based on ideology, not party affiliation", and it's why, when asked, I identify myself as a "small-i" independent.

At Friday, April 18, 2008 4:11:00 PM , Blogger MSWallack said...

I absolutely agree that voters should choose candidates on the basis of ideology (or, perhaps, even better than ideology, "positions on issues important to the voter"). My thoughts on political parties in general will be a good topic for another day...

At Tuesday, May 06, 2008 2:07:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

We really need someone to step up and challenge the unconstitutional way we are forced to vote in Indiana.

I hate having to pick parties. I have always voted a split ballot but NOT in Indiana in the Primary.

I feel my vote is useless as you are forcing me to vote for all republicans or all democrats in the primary.

I left alot of boxes blank as there were several people that were unopposed that I did not want to vote for...

Your neighbor in Noblesville

At Tuesday, May 06, 2008 3:14:00 PM , Blogger MSWallack said...


While I am an attorney, I'm unfortunately not a Constitutional law expert. That said, I agree with you that Indiana's primary system certainly seems to be unconstitutional for some reason. Apparently, there has been plenty of litigation in "true" closed primary systems (where you cannot change your registration) on the basis of violation of the First Amendment's right to association. But, so far as I know, our system has not been challenged.

I've spoken to several other attorneys who do practice in the area of Constitutional law and they've generally agreed that our system seems flawed, but they're not quite sure that they can put their finger on a real Constitutional argument. Add to that the cost of pursuing a case to challenge the primary system and litigation seems -- unfortunately -- unlikely.

Of course, if a plaintiff (or, even better a group of plaintiffs) that really wanted to push the issue came along, then I certainly imagine that a group like the ACLU or one of the voting rights advocacy groups would be interested in at least looking into the possibility.

For now, though, it seems that the best possibility for change is to begin to put pressure on our elected officials; after all, it is the General Assembly that makes the rules.

Thanks for the taking the time to read and comment.


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