Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Primary Law a Failure

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


After four years of experiment with the Wisconsin primary election law it is not difficult to point out many weaknesses and inadequacies that have become apparent in its operations. Even the original primary election advocates, those who were confident the law would prove to be an automatic cure all for political ills, now acknowledge that it must be amended. They still contend that the principle is sound; they merely propose to make certain changes in the statute in order to give the principle an opportunity to do its work.


Many voters who supported it after a four years' trial of the law are tired of it. They do not believe the principle is capable of successful application to the nomination of candidates for office. There are many citizens who will not express an opinion because they have been impressed with the belief that there is something sacred about the direct primary election plan, and they are further convinced that there is an overwhelming public sentiment behind it. But there are enough who openly and unequivocally condemn the law and the principle involved in it to indicate clearly what informed public sentiment in Wisconsin now is on this subject.

Objections to the law are based on its failures to perform the miracles its friends claimed for it and the positive disadvantages and grave evils that have developed through the attempt to apply the principle practically. In other words, it has failed signally to effect reforms promised and it has brought forth a brood of political and social abuses of the most serious character. Here are a few of the more serious criticisms of the law as it has been developed in this state:

1. The personnel of the officeholding class has not been improved; better, more capable, and cleaner men have not been elected to office; public officers are not more devoted to their duties; the civil service is not improved by the appointment of a better class of employes.

2. Public morals are not elevated by the change in the method of making nominations. Never before in the history of the state was so much money expended by candidates in campaigns as at present. Never before were there so many open charges of corruption and the unlawful use of money.

3. It has disorganized parties and built up personal political machines.

4. The members of the state legislature are split up into factions and there is no party responsibility for their acts, which has resulted in an endless amount of useless and some harmful legislation.

5. The primary contests have engendered so much bitterness that each election brings about a new alignment of personal political machines.

6. Nominations at the primaries no longer represent the will of the members of the parties making the nominations. The members of the minority party invariably vote in the primaries of the majority party. Republican candidates with personal machines make trades with democrats and socialists for votes in republican primaries. Democratic leaders are hopeless, for they do not have even the consolation of being at the head of a party that stands for democratic principles, a respectable minority party.

7. Poor men and men of moderate means can not become candidates for office under the primary election law when there are contests, except on two conditions. They must face ruin or accept money from others to defray their necessary expenses. If they accept financial aid they assume obligations no public servant should incur.

8. The electors can not "vote directly for the men of their choice" at a primary election. They must vote for some man whose name appears on the primary ticket, and that ticket is made up of candidates who have circulated nomination papers or caused nomination papers to be circulated. They may all be officeseekers and objectionable to 90 per cent of the voters, but the voter must submit to make his choice from the self nominated primary candidates.

9. Never in the history of the state have the enmities engendered by political contests been so bitter as they are today. All pretense of the old good natured rivalry between parties has disappeared from the political arena. Charges of unlawful use of money, of a debauched public service, of actual bribery, of personal dishonesty and political trickery were common during the last session of the legislature.

10. Few, if any, intelligent men who take an interest in politics can be found in the state who will not readily admit that the law is not satisfactory and needs amendment. Changes have been suggested at every session of the legislature since the law was enacted, but no real remedy has been found.

11. While no attempt has been made to compute the entire cost of the law in operation to the taxpayers of the state, counties and cities, no one will for a moment dispute the truth of the statement that it has been enormous and that no compensating benefit has resulted.

12. The law gives a decided advantage to the man in office. In the case of a United States senator or state officer where the candidate must appeal to the entire electorate, the man who is known to the people as the man in office is, has much advantage over the newcomer. The well advertised candidate, although he is an inferior person, will get the nomination over a less advertised, hut better equipped candidate.

13. The placing of names of candidates on primary tickets by petition has developed a new industry in this state during primary campaigns--the circulation of petitions for hire. The party clubs of former years have disappeared; in their places have appeared the mercenaries who secure names on petitions for a consideration. This is an exchange of patriotism for pelf.

14. The abolition of all conventions, county, district and state, has deprived the voters of parties of the opportunity to get together, rub elbows and become acquainted. In conventions men from different sections of the state met and exchanged views. They explained the merits and abilities of the several candidates for office and they made "trades" to the advantage of the party ticket in most cases. The conventions were the schools of polities to which many young men went for their education and they had an educative value. All the advantages of this free intercourse and the exchange of ideas and information disappeared with the abolition of the convention.

15. The provision for making platforms in conventions made up of candidates for office is a confessed failure. Platforms made in that way do not represent the principles of the party, but are mere "catch vote" affairs. Even the candidates who make them do not respect them, for they go out into the field with platforms of their own, in many cases carefully prepared, printed and distributed.

16. The law has not dethroned the political boss. If we ever had a real boss in Wisconsin before the primary law we have merely changed bosses. Upon that feature of the question there is no chance for argument. The law complicates politics, and any law that does this widens the opportunity for manipulation and increases the activity of the boss. In fact, complicated politics require leadership and political genius.

The shortest and most satisfactory solution of the primary election problem as it is now presented can be incorporated in three words: "Repeal the law." But something is needed to take its place. For ten years before the primary election law now in force was presented to the legislature in 1901 the Wisconsin lawmakers had been experimenting. They had developed through the evolutionary method what was known as the Milwaukee primary or caucus and convention law. There was no pretense on the part of any Milwaukee citizens, whether actively interested in politics as candidates, public officers, or committeemen, or among private citizens whose sole interest was good government, that the Milwaukee primary law did not furnish adequate protection to the elector in the exercise of every right to participate in the management of the affairs of his party, if he belonged to a party, and in the nomination of its candidates for office.

Under the Milwaukee primary law the members of parties voted directly for the nomination of all candidates for local offices and for delegates to city, county, district, and state conventions. In other words, within the territory in which they were, or could be, acquainted with the characters and qualifications of candidates they nominated by a direct vote. When the territory embraced in a district was so large that there was a doubt of the ability of the voters to choose intelligently, they selected representatives in whom they had confidence to meet in party conventions and act for them. This was in accordance with the principles of representative government, the only kind of government possible in a country like ours.

Under the Milwaukee law, also, the candidates were placed on the primary ticket at preliminary meetings which were open to all members of the party and any name proposed as that of a fit man to become a candidate for office or for a place on a delegation would be received and placed on the primary ballot. In this way canvassing for signatures to nomination papers was avoided and the expense incidental at to such a canvass was made unnecessary.

Under the Milwaukee law candidates for office who were to be nominated by a direct vote of the electors did not have large districts to canvass and it was not necessary for them to organize personal machines and hire mercenaries to aid them in their primary campaigns. They did not deem it necessary to fill columns of the newspapers and cover acres of billboard space with glaring advertisements of their virtues and qualifications for the offices they were industriously seeking.

Where a district was larger than a township or ward, candidates were required to lay their claims before representatives of the voters in a party convention. Members of other parties could not participate in the business before the convention. It was a family matter conducted by members of the family of voters. Independent voters, dissatisfied members of the party, and members of other parties were given an opportunity to express their approval or disapproval of the nominations made and platforms adopted when the time came to elect or defeat the candidates nominated, but the nominations were made by the members of the parties and no others--a most wise provision.

Under the Milwaukee law when candidates were nominated by party members there was order and system as well as party responsibility. Party committees and clubs aided in the election of party tickets. Whatever money was required to carry on the campaign was expended largely by party committees in the interests of the entire ticket. Political clubs were organized in the wards, made up of citizens who cherished no personal political ambition and whose sole aim was the promotion of party success and the triumph of party principles. they held meetings, discussed public questions, exchanged opinions, and devised measures for the advancement of the interests of the party in the local field. Young men who became members of these clubs and who attended party conventions as delegates, having won the confidence of their neighbors, were in this way given a liberal education in the principles of government. They gained experience, a knowledge of men, and a familiarity with public affairs that can be attained only by meeting and mixing with other men who are equally interested and patriotic. Their minds were broadened, their acquaintance multiplied, and their ability to become useful citizens increased by their political activities. Now that political clubs and conventions have been abolished in this state there is no place for the young business and professional man in politics except as an officeseeker or a mercenary attached to some personal political machine.

While there were complaints under the old system that the best man was not always nominated and that, at times, parties were not always wisely governed, there was not one fault found with that system that has not been exaggerated beyond all reason in these days of political disorganization.

In addition to repealing the primary election law and re-enacting the Milwaukee caucus and convention law of 1899, steps should be taken to provide for a limit to expenses that may be incurred by candidates seeking nominations. This may well be done when candidates arc nominated by conventions made up of delegates representing large districts or territories. In the old days it frequently occurred that candidates were nominated who had not spent one cent to advance their own interests. John O. Spooner was nominated three times for the United States senate and he did not spend money to secure either the nomination or election. Where candidates are nominated by a direct vote in a strict party caucus or primary--in what is known as a closed primary--as was done under the old Milwaukee caucus and convention law in the case of all local officers, the expenses may be limited to a reasonable amount.

But, under the Wisconsin primary election law now in force there is an element of injustice in putting up an office at auction and then denying candidates the right to bid in the open. A candidate for a state office must have a wide acquaintance, must be favorably known--or well known, in any event--in order to stand a chance of success. If he be not well known in advance he must make himself known through a campaign of publicity. This can be accomplished in but one way--he must spend money and spend it liberally.

What right has a state to enact a law by which long, arduous, and expensive campaigns are made necessary if the candidate shall hope to win, and then provide a limit of expenses that makes such a campaign impossible; or at least impractical? The state has no right to tempt its citizens to spend money and then brand as a corrupt practice the act it has itself invited. The state should be consistent. Having put its offices up at public auction it should abide by the consequences or adopt a new system. It has no right to say that only men of wide and intimate personal acquaintance in congressional districts may hope to be nominated for congress, denying to men of limited acquaintance in the district the right to make themselves and their ability known to the voters.

In a convention such a man would have a fighting chance--or his friends in the convention from his home county would at least be able to present to the delegates his claims and make them acquainted with his qualifications, if he be well qualified for the position. In the primary election he would not even have a chance to fight against another man who had sold horses or bought hogs all over the district and who could call a majority of the voters by their Christian names. What right has the state to make it necessary to spend money to win a nomination and then deny the candidate the privilege of spending money?

And yet a limit to such expenditures must be fixed. Here is a primary election paradox. To leave the law as it is merely puts a premium on corruption. To amend it would deprive worthy men of all opportunity of becoming candidates for office with a prospect of success unless they were widely known in advance. And there is still another reason why the amount of money that may be expended in seeking office should be limited. Only men of wealth can afford to seek, or accept, office solely for the honor attached to positions of trust and confidence. Men of moderate means invite ruin when they expend large sums to secure a public office. Many men have been utterly ruined by officeseeking and officeholding. If the cost of getting office be increased or maintained at its present figure in this state, corruption and graft will follow as a natural consequence. There is no escape from this conclusion. There is no call for theories, for eloquent generalities, for appeals to popular prejudice in this emergency. The use of cant phrases such as "special interests," the "right of the people to a direct vote," and "fundamentals of government" is all well enough in its place, as is also the use of the terms "progressive" and "reactionary" to distinguish those who favor or are opposed to the Wisconsin primary law as it is, but cant is not what is needed in this state at the present time.

Wisconsin is confronted by a condition, clearly defined, unmistakable in character, and demanding amendment at the earliest possible moment. The columns of the newspaper press have been full of the details of this condition for months. Business and professional men, politicians and private citizens, farmers, artisans and laboring men are all aware of the situation and wondering what is to become of the state.

There is but one way to escape the evils that are threatening and that is to bring to bear on the members of the legislature enough pressure to cause them to make the necessary changes in the method of nominating candidates. They will not do it without pressure. There is a popular superstition that the direct primary is a sacred institution. It has had a mighty conjure spell thrown about it. It is demonstrably a failure, but thousands are as afraid of it as they are of a haunted house or a cemetery at midnight. The members of the legislature will not touch it until they are forced to do so and the only power that can force them is the voters.

The law is bad. It should be changed or repealed. To do so will not be a step backward as some will claim, but a step forward, just as much so as it is to repeal any other bad law. There is nothing sacred about it. It is only a pretty theory that does not work out in practice. The friends of constitutional government should make the question an issue in every legislative district. The fact that some politicians still cling to it as a parent does to a wayward child should not deter the movement for its repeal. Those who have brought themselves into political prominence by agitating it have been rewarded. In other words, they have been settled with. If they wish to continue in the public service they should come forward and aid the people in wiping out a colossal blunder. This is a splendid opportunity for them to demonstrate to the people that they have a higher regard for the public welfare than their own selfish interest. What the people should now do is to fix up their election laws in a way that will guarantee constitutional government and thereby perpetuate our republican institutions.