Post Politics: Get the state out of the primary process

Sunday, February 28, 2010 at 11:45pm
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Former state Sen. Rosalind Kurita

“Dude, it’s done. They’re stealing it from her.”

That’s what I was told a few days before state Sen. Rosalind Kurita’s 2008 primary victory over Tim Barnes was declared “incurably uncertain” by the Tennessee Democratic Party’s executive committee. Kurita won that primary by a nine-vote margin. The vote was certified by the Secretary of State. However, Barnes and the TNDP challenged the vote.

At the obligatory show trial at a downtown hotel, Barnes and the party made sundry charges, including that poll workers had steered Democrats to the Republican primary, the GOP had attempted to influence the results of a Democratic primary, and Kurita herself had entered a polling place illegally. Both sides presented witnesses, and arguments were made — but it wasn’t in court, no judge presided, and the charges, for the most part, were bogus.

Although this state has an open primary system, it is ultimately up to each party to decide their nominees. Yes, the parties use state government buildings, machines and resources — but it doesn’t matter. The parties have the discretion to simply throw out primary election results for whatever reason. Kurita’s case made that plain to everyone.

A bill being considered in the legislature would allow any candidate who wants to challenge the results of a primary to appeal to the secretary of state, who would appoint an administrative law judge to hear the case.

The bill is designed to prevent events like those outlined above from transpiring, and Kurita is glad to hear it.

“A small number of people who were members of a political party executive committee overturned a certified election that was paid for by taxpayers,” Kurita told Clarksville’s Leaf-Chronicle. “It is not surprising that the General Assembly would try to prevent this from ever happening again.”

If public funds and resources are used to conduct an election, the controlling legal authority should be some sort of court or state agency, not a political party.

But the ultimate question is whether primary elections should have anything to do with the state in the first place.

Political parties are private organizations. Who the nominee of a party is should be of no consequence to the state. Whatever mechanism parties wish to use in primary elections — be it caucus, primary or convention — is really none of the state’s business.

We should not be co-mingling political parties and the state in this fashion. By participating in the selection processes of the two major parties, the state is essentially playing favorites. Who says the state should help Republicans and Democrats determine their candidates and not Libertarians or Greens? What makes the Democrats and Republicans so special?

The unfortunate thing is that the Tennessee system, 99 times out of 100, serves us well and enriches our politics. Open primaries have kept at bay (until recently) the kind of political extremism that tends to be more pronounced in other states. Republicans and Democrats still pander to their bases here, but in the back of their minds they remain cognizant that not everyone voting in primaries is a party activist or donor. That’s a healthy thing for the people and the parties.

Tennessee has a history of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans that other states can’t boast, and we have had a longstanding record of bipartisan cooperation. Tennessee, for a long time, has been not red or blue but an eclectic purple blend of the two. Not many states can say that. You have to give a lot of credit for that to the open primary system.

Our political traditions are important, and pragmatism and bipartisanship should be encouraged. If both parties are going to continue to have primaries administered by the state, this bill is a welcome reform to be embraced.

But the fact remains that political parties should be able to determine their own destinies, unfettered by the state. We should let them.

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14 Comments on this post:

By: Anna3 on 3/1/10 at 7:42

Folks...this cat has been out of the bag for generations. The two party system is institutionalized in our law and has been for years. The most clear example of this is when one examines the County Election Commissions. It would never matter if the Libertarians, Greens, or Tea Party won every seat in Davidson County's State Legislative Delegation...the Republicans get three seats and the Democrats get two seats of the five available because the system is written into our laws that way. This is why a person MUST join a party to really change things within the system... because anarchy and hell raisin' do not change a thing really. Many years ago, our political leadership chose to have a two party system in order to avoid the mess we see in countries which have a Parlimentry form of government and must cobble together 15 different parties/factions in order to form a "Majority" government. These coalitions often break down in mid legislative session and cause the government to shut down and multiple special elections to be held. Simply put, its a mess. Our system "Aint" perfect...but its the best one devised by man yet.

By: aih on 3/1/10 at 8:29

With control of local election commissions determined by party in control in Nashville, the State is already involved in our primaries. I don't object to appeals proposal. But regardless of which party controls commissions or appoints law judge, its up to individual candidates to campaign and win in such a way that no questions remain the day after their election.

By: localboy on 3/1/10 at 8:58

"conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans"...if as implied the Democrats have a right wing in this state, then the corollary would be left wing or liberal Republicans at the intersection point, not moderate...however the author can't use such terminology without offending his base support.

By: dondad on 3/1/10 at 9:00


Let them decide themselves, but do not have the state pay for any of it. The parties should have the power to decide their candidates, but should also bear the cost, not the taxpayers.

By: dondad on 3/1/10 at 9:00


By: AmyLiorate on 3/1/10 at 9:24

I've said the same thing as A.C. for a long time. I'll add one more factor -

As I heard several times recently in the hub-bub about the new convention center, one side says put it to a public vote. Another person would say that the vote costs too much.

Sometimes we have a party that is only running one candidate while the other party can't agree on a single candidate. So they have a primary... well that party should be paying for all the costs to run the polls that day. After all most people are not in either party but all are footing the bill for the primary. If the primary runs the day of some other special election then the cost could be split.

As for AC's very last sentence, I'd say that the Instant Runoff is the best system devised by man, it could overcome the need for primaries and serve us better by letting people vote more inline with their true opinions on candidates. The only reason I can see for NOT having IRV is that the TWO party system would fear a 3rd party gaining momentum.

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