Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Direct Primary

Chapter I of Part One of Political Reform in Wisconsin (1910) by Emanuel L. Philipp (see Introduction and Contents)


The direct primary principle is advocated by citizens who believe in sticking as close to the pure democratic form of government as is possible. They believe the citizen should never delegate his rights and powers as a voter to another when it is possible for him to perform his duties and exercise his privileges himself. They believe the right to vote for candidates for office necessarily carries with it the right to assist in nominating those candidates; that the first step in the exercise of the elective franchise is as important as the second; that the right to cast the first ballot in making a direct choice at the primary is as sacred as the right to cast the second ballot on election day.

The motives of the men who, during the last thirty years, have publicly advocated primary election reforms in the several states should not be called in question. In the main these progressives, as they like to be called, have been sincere and unselfish in their devotion to a movement believed by them to be designed to purify politics, to improve the personnel of the office holding class, to dethrone the political boss and put his "gang" out of business, and to encourage the better element of the citizenry to actively participate in primaries and elections. Many of the advocates of the movement have been members of that "better element" about which so much has been said and written during the discussions that have attended the progress a1ong reform lines. With certain glaring exceptions, they have been men in whom the outward and visible sign of an inward office hunger was not too painfully conspicuous. They simply wanted to arrange the nominating machinery so that men of their own kind would be encouraged to take an active part in politics.

Years ago it was argued in the public press and periodicals that good people did not attend mass caucuses because they were convinced the results of those meetings always were determined in advance; that the election of delegates to conventions was "fixed up by some job or ring influence." Also, it was asserted that the better element would not attend political caucuses in the evening or at any hour "at the risk of encountering a crowd, or being hustled or jostled by intoxicated men." That there was foundation in fact for the statements discrediting the mass caucus in large cities does not require argument. Men who know to what extent the hoodlum element carried their excesses at the primaries—-and the elections as well--in metropolitan cities and congested districts, will not make excuses for the abuses complained of or attempt to palliate them.

The result was that the complaints, persistently but not too clamorously made at first, had a tendency to prick the law makers and party leaders to activity and tentative experiments in primary reforms were inaugurated. This was a wholesome movement and it did not call for an acrimonious controversy, as politicians as well as private citizens lent their aid to the effort to remove the defects complained of by judiciously treating the cause. As a matter of fact, from the first voluntary changes in the method of conducting caucuses made by party leaders in Wisconsin before any law on the subject had been enacted, down to the the of the violent outbreak of controversy in 1901, there was little if any public interest manifested in the movement. Yet noteworthy progress was made in the betterment of conditions under which the primaries were held.

In California the primary election idea was recognized by law as early as 1866, and in 1872 that recognition was formally incorporated into the codes. Any party or association of electors in any political subdivision of the state was authorized by law to hold a primary election for the nomination of local candidates and the election of delegates to represent them in conventions called for larger districts in which the voters at the primary were entitled to participate. Other states followed in the footsteps of California. Early in the last quarter of the nineteenth century the city of Baltimore regularly elected its municipal officers from candidates nominated by direct vote of the people of that city without the intervention of party conventions. In Baltimore it was reported that the experiment was eminently satisfactory in its results. At a meeting of the Young Men’s Democratic club of New York, held in that city in Dccember 1881, it was asserted of the Baltimore primaries that
here the primary votes directly for the candidate and the polls are open all day. The result has been the extirpation of the political bosses and an extraordinarily full vote. In 1876, when all the municipal offices were to be filled, 6,200 democrats out of 7,500 registered voted on the nominations at the polls at the primaries. If we could obtain anything approaching to the same proportion of the party vote on nominations of both sides in this city, what a gain It would be!
On the other hand, the experiment in California was not so satisfactory. A citizen of San Francisco complains, in a letter to the Nation Magazine of January 28, 1882, that, while the direct vote primary, when held in the rural districts, uniformly elected a superior class of delegates and nominated good men for office, the result of such elections in the city was that invariably dissensions followed and dissatisfaction was manifested.

Subsequent trials of the primary election plan were made in Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and other states. In each case, however, the option was given to the party managers to call a primary or to nominate by the old caucus and convention plan. It will be noticed that practically all the early experiments with the plan of nominating candidates by direct vote of the members of the party were made in what may be called one party states, and it was the dominant party that made use of the primary election to nominate its candidates. The minority party in each of the states mentioned had no use for restraints imposed by a primary law. They had no contests for nominations. Their principal trouble was in persuading citizens to accept nominations at their hands to be followed by certain failure of election without any attending glory to take the poison from the sting of defeat or to repay them for the loss of the and the expense incidental to the campaign.

All this time experience, growth, development, were doing their work and prominent men who were known as practical politicians, as well as public spirited private citizens, were becoming more and more interested in a movement to devise a workable plan for regulating the primaries. It may be said all parties and all classes of citizens contributed to some extent toward the solution of the problem, for the democrats in strong democratic states and cities, and republicans in sections where they were in control by reason of their majorities, made changes in the primaries, in many cases without a statutory urge, because they believed the matters pertaining to party government should be left to the control of party members.

In other cases, when it was found that the authority of law would aid the movement, statutes were enacted giving to party committees a legal status, defining their duties and making provisions for the government of primaries. The progress made was purely evolutionary in its character and the changes were so natural and logical, following in one another’s footsteps in so orderly a manner, they did not cause surprise or excite bitter contentions.