Sunday, February 7, 2010

How the Direct Primary Idea Was Born, Grew, and Flourished in Wisconsin

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

There is much to be regretted by the people of Wisconsin in the history made during the bitter factional feud that broke out in the winter of 1901 in Madison. As is always the case when two wings of a political party engage in a heated controversy in which the personal element plays a conspicuous part, neither side was entirely blameless in this instance. There were men in both factions who at heart were actuated by the highest motives, whose personal integrity should not be questioned, but whose acts on occasions were colored to some extent by their surroundings and associations. Sincere men who tried to do their duty were misunderstood and misjudged by others, equally sincere, who in their turn were misunderstood and misjudged. The trouble at Madison was that the legislative and executive wires were crossed and the wholesome currents of reason and wisdom were short circuited.

The consequence was that the advancement the people had a right to expect from that and succeeding legislatures was made impossible. Reforms that had been well started on the road to ultimate success were side tracked indefinitely. Measures that required the wisest counsel of all members of the legislature to make them workable and effective for good became the subjects of acrimonious debate and the best results were not attained. Undue weight frequently was given to matters of relatively trifling importance; factional advantage was sought on occasions by perniciously active partisans at the sacrifice of the best interests of the state, and the more conservative members of both parties to the controversy were at times swept into the heat of battle against their better judgment, which was held in abeyance for the time being.

It was not the proposition to reform the primaries that brought about the unfortunate outbreak of hostilities beginning in 1901 and continuing through successive campaigns. As has been shown, the work of improving the primaries, begun in 1891, had progressed steadily from that the through successive biennial sessions of the legislature down to the year 1899. The old mass caucus had served its day and purpose and had been summarily deposited in that gulf into which are dumped all worn out institutions that have outlived their usefulness.

The first step toward the entire abolition of conventions as well as caucuses in this state was made in 1897 by the introduction of bill No. 580A by Assemblyman William T. Lewis of Racine, a manufacturer and business man, not a professional politician. Mr. Lewis was not the author of the "Lewis Primary Election bill," as it was afterward called. When he came to Madison there were two subjects in which he was interested and for which he hoped to secure a respectful hearing. One was convict labor, he being opposed to allowing the inmates of the state prison to compete with free labor; the other was the direct nomination of all candidates for office by the voters at primary elections.

Shortly after the opening of the legislature Mr. Lewis called upon Mr. La Follette, then a private citizen practicing law in Madison, having failed in his effort to secure the republican nomination for governor the previous year. Mr. Lewis presented the two subjects mentioned to Mr. La Follette, explained his understanding of them, and asked La Foilette to draw two bills to be presented to the legislature covering those subjects. Mr. La Follette replied that he was so busy at that the that it would be impossible for him to comply with the request, and declined to undertake the task.

Mr. Lewis then laid the matter before another Madison attorney with better results, as he did secure a bill relating to convict labor which he introduced. Some time later the attorney came to Mr. Lewis with the draft of a primary bill, and that, too, was introduced and became the Lewis primary election bill of 1897. It provided for holding primaries on the first Tuesday alter the first Monday in September of each election year and the nomination of all candidates for public office by a direct vote of the party members. The primaries of all parties were to be held at the same time and place, but they were to be in fact separate primaries, as each party was to have its own inspectors, ballots, and ballot boxes, and the voters were expected to state their preferences as to parties and to participate in the nomination of the candidates of the party thus selected, and no other. On April 8 this measure was indefinitely postponed on recommendation of the committee on privileges and elections, the committee that reported favorably on the Mills primary bill already referred to.

The second bill to require nominations by a direct vote was introduced in the legislature in 1899 by Gen. George E. Bryant, afterward chairman of the republican state central committee. This measure was almost identical in its provisions with the Lewis bill and it met the same fate at the session that passed the Lange law extending the scope of the Milwaukee law to the entire state in modified form.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary it is fair to presunme that the Lewis bill was Mr. La Follette's first introduction to the primary idea. Up to that time, although he frequently had appeared as the champion of reforms of one kind or another, he had never proposed the nomination of candidates by a direct vote. He had been defeated in the convention of 1896, an event calculated to make him resentful and cause him to meditate revenge, but it was a year after he had talked with Mr. Lewis that he first gave public expression to his wish to do away with conventions altogether. The Lewis bill was introduced in the assembly on Feb. 10, 1897, and in March, 1898, Mr. La Follette made his famous Ann Arbor speech before the students of the University of Michigan, in which he took an unequivocal stand in favor of the abolition of all caucuses and conventions and the nomination of candidates for state, congressional, legislative, judicial and local offices by a direct vote of the electors, using the Australian ballot. He did not present an outline of a measure to be adopted, but contented himself with proving to his own satisfaction that official and corporate corruption, of which he painted a lurid picture, could only be banished from our states by the application in some practical form to be devised by legislatures of the broad principle of direct nominations. This address was printed in the Chicago Tribune at the time and caused considerable comment. Also it was delivered before the students of the University of Chicago and on every occasion where Mr. La Follette could secure an audience.

The same year, Mr. La Follette became a candidate for the republican nomination for governor a second time and once more he was defeated in the state convention. The campaign was a warm one and the attacks made on Gov. Scofield by Mr. La Follette’s partisans were not calculated to induce the people of Wisconsin to trust the fiery aspirant for gubernatorial honors and his partisans with the government of the state.

The convention of delegates did, however, adopt a platform in which appeared a plank that has since been interpreted to mean that the primary election idea was popular and had been promised to the people of the state. The plank read as follows:
Recognizing that the present caucus and convention law is not free from defects, we favor such legislation as will secure to every citizen the freest expression of his choice in the selection of candidates.
The republican party, aided by democrats, had been endeavoring for eight years to remedy the defects in the caucus and convention system, and they were in a fair way to succeed.

But it must be acknowledged that to Robert M. La Follette should be given whatever credit is due for the ultimate adoption of the primary election system in Wisconsin. While others may have originated the plan and dreamed over its success at some future time, he took the matter in both hands and went out to cultivate the crop, even if he did not sow all the seed. As a platform orator he has strong points. He is intense, he is dramatic, he is forceful. He faces his audiences with flashing eye and a forty-man power energy. He convinces by sheer force of eloquence--not spontaneous, but carefully studied, and therefore effective. His hearers are swept along with a flood of words and sentences which they have no time and usually no disposition to weigh and analyze.

When such a man starts out to popularize a plan or idea he gets a hearing. Mr. La Follette based his advocacy of the direct vote plan of making nominations for office on the allegation that conventions invariably were machine ruled and that the boss, omnipresent in the political world and ranging in degree from the little minnow bosses in the townships and wards to the big whale boss that governed the state, could be overthrown in no other way. He was particularly severe on the railway corporations, and their officials, who were supposed to control party conventions with the help of the bosses, great and small. He professed to see corruption of the most offensive kind on every hand as the sole result of convention manipulation; he saw corporations uniting with professional politicians for the enslavement of the people, the control of legislation, the tempting of executive and administrative public servants from the path of rectitude. The one sovereign remedy that appealed to him was the abolition of conventions. Probably a more depressing, pessimistic word picture of alleged total depravity was never presented to the public for its enlightenment, than the one held up by Mr. La Follette as an accurate portrayal of conditions from which he drew his inspiration to push forward the primary election movement.

Mr. La Follette delivered his address before the students at Ann Arbor in March, 1898. On March 21, 1898, the first draft of a tentative primary bill prepared by L. J. Nash, the Manitowoc lawyer, was printed in The Milwaukee Sentinel. Mr. Nash perfected his measure later, and in August of that year he caused several hundred copies to be printed and circulated among leading men of the state, educators and members of the legislature. It has been said that a copy of the Nash bill was in the hands of the men who framed the primary bill in 1901, but there is no record evidence of that fact.

In presenting his proposed measure for the consideration of public spirited citizens, Mr. Nash did not take the position of an alarmist. He believed public sentiment was changing and that the time was rapidly approaching when there would be no occasion for debate. "If thoughtful men are not now unanimous on this subject it is believed that they will fast become so," he said in a preface to his printed bill. His explanation of the reasons that prompted him to prepare the measure and offer it to students of the subject for examination and criticism were stated in a few words. He said:
The draft of a primary election law presented in the following pages is the offspring of a belief that it has become the duty of the state to take into its own hands the whole machinery by which candidates for public office are selected, and to restrain the activity of political parties within its legitimate field, education; compelling them to abandon office getting mainly through organization and organization mainly for office getting as their principal reason for existence, and to substitute the function of teaching public policy and inculcating political doctrine as their primary object while allowing them to win the great political offices through the success of their propaganda. All this should be done, of course, by laws that are both in their provisions and their administration judicially fair to every party alike and to the unorganized Independent voter.
There is no evidence at hand that Mr. Nash had a selfish motive in preparing and presenting his measure to the public and it must be conceded that he was inspired by worthy purposes. He brought to the task a trained legal mind and an experience as a practicing attorney that had won him distinction at the bar. But at best his knowledge of the subject treated was purely academic. The trials made of the direct vote system of making nominations had been conducted in limited spheres and one of the most serious objections to the plan was thereby evaded.

The Nash bill provided for two primaries. At the first a prelimmary vote was taken to place candidates in the field; at the second the candidates were nominated. The regular election machinery of the townships and wards was to be used for operating the primaries. All primaries were to be held at the same the and place. Existing laws were to be made a part of the new law and the qualifications of voters in the primaries were to be the same as at general elections. The candidates for governor and lieutenant governor were to be nominated at the primary, but it was provided that the candidate for governor was to name the candidates for othar places on the state ticket--to appoint his cabinet as it were, and submit their names to the voters for confirmation or rejection. Provision also was made for placing independent, or fusion tickets in the field.