Primary Absurdity: Our Expensive Presidential Beauty Contests

State presidential primaries have strayed far from their original purposes. So why must taxpayers pick up the tab?
September 24, 2015
By Phil Keisling  |  Contributor
Director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government

Feb. 9, 2016, looms larger by the day. That's the date of the iconic New Hampshire presidential primary, famous for dashing the dreams of so many White House wannabes and vaulting previously obscure candidates onto center stage.

So is this also the day reserved for loyal Granite State Democrats and Republicans to reflect carefully on their respective parties' bedrock principles as they weigh who their party's standard-bearers deserve to be? Think again.

Today, 44 percent of New Hampshire's approximately 900,000 voters are none-of-the-aboves, officially registered as "undeclared." Yet every one of these voters is eligible to cast a presidential primary ballot in either party's contest simply by registering in one party or another on the spot. Once they've done their electoral duty, they can switch back to the party status (or lack thereof) that they enjoyed when they woke up that morning. Most do exactly that.

Thus might New Hampshire's presidential primary once again change American history, in large part because of a several hundred thousand five-minute Democrats and Republicans.

This is just one of the many oddities -- even outright absurdities -- of what might be called America's most high-profile "non-election" elections. No federal law or state constitution requires these elections. Yet between February's New Hampshire contest and the April 5 Wisconsin primary, 24 states will hold presidential primaries, all of them conducted by local election officials and paid for by their taxpayers. And the pledges of party convention delegates chosen through this process to support a particular candidate have the same legal heft as the Republican loyalty oath Donald Trump recently initialed -- none whatever.

In essence, these contests are more like massive, non-binding, taxpayer-financed preference polls. And they're costing a lot more than they used to.

A generation ago, most of these presidential beauty contests were piggybacked onto primary elections for other offices. But, much like manufacturers competing fiercely for the most visible product placement, more and more states have been jockeying to hold their primaries ever-earlier in the election cycle. As a result, almost half the states have now decoupled these contests from other primary elections. Of the 24 early-primary states, only three -- Illinois , Ohio and Texas -- will avoid the costs of holding separate primaries for all their other offices later in the year.

So what are primary voters getting for their money? New Hampshire is actually an exception when it comes to how easy it is for any voter to help determine a party's presidential nominee. In most other states, it's even easier. In 15 of these first 24 states, not a single officially registered Democrat or Republican will cast a ballot, for a simple reason: These 15 states don't register voters by political party. On presidential primary day, any voter, regardless of his or her actual political views, can choose any party's ballot.

As a general principle, such inclusivity may have merit. But there are also considerable risks for state- and local-government election officials who will be the ones blamed (and not the political parties or their operatives ) should the integrity of their election systems be sullied by those who might try to exploit this very openness for their partisan purposes.

During the 2008 presidential primary season, for example, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh urged conservatives to help "bloody up Obama politically" by participating as Democrats to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Ohio and Texas primaries. John McCain by that point had the Republican nomination largely sewn up, Limbaugh explained, and "I want our party to win. I want the Democrats to lose."

In relative terms, the 2008 race was a rubber-knife fight compared to the heavy artillery that will dominate the 2016 battlefield. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- and the proliferation of multi-billionaire donors and secretive Super PACS it's helped spawn -- threaten to make the current election cycle exponentially more expensive.

So what's to prevent organized, well-funded efforts to encourage unapologetic liberals to play Republican for a day -- or conservatives from taking a similar walk on their political wild side? Here's where various state laws start venturing into the territory of the absurd.

While most states are silent on the matter, several have statutes that equate the act of accepting a party's primary ballot with taking an oath of allegiance. Indiana requires that a primary voter must have voted in the last general election "for a majority of the nominees of the party holding the primary." And these laws are enforced how, exactly? Well, in Illinois, when primary voters next March declare their party affiliation before receiving a ballot, an election judge is required to announce that choice "in a distinct tone of voice, sufficiently loud to be heard by all persons in the polling place." That's about as tough as enforcement gets.

All these front-loaded presidential primaries may give a lucky few of these states their glamorous star-turn in the presidential-sweepstakes spotlight. But this doesn't obscure the Faustian bargain here or the need to fundamentally re-think these arrangements. State and local taxpayers are increasingly footing the bill -- to open their polls, hire thousands of election workers and count (and if necessary, re-count) votes -- all to help private organizations get more meaningful "customer input" on whom they should serve up to the country in November as their presidential nominee.

It's past time for states to insist that the parties themselves pay for the privilege of having these contests blessed with the states' official imprimaturs -- not to mention work together to agree to some basic rules that will better protect the integrity and legitimacy of their election systems.