The Direct Primary
Legislative Reference Bureau
At the annual March election of 1914 the following questions will be submitted to a vote of the qualified electors of the state:
"Do you favor a preferential primary system whereby the voters may instruct their delegates to political conventions as to their preference for candidates for office?"
"Do you favor a direct primary law whereby the voters are to vote directly for the candidates rather than the present system of nominating candidates for state, congressional and county officers?"
In view of this fact and because of the general interest in the subject throughout the state this bulletin has been prepared for the purpose of making available to the general public the information contained in the files of the Legislative Reference Bureau. The bureau maintains an absolutely impartial attitude on this as on all other public questions and any statements appearing in this pamphlet must not be taken as expressing the opinion of any members of the bureau force.
JOHN M. AVERY,
Legislative Reference Librarian.
There has been much discussion of the direct primary and many arguments have been advanced pro and con. The following have been compiled from various sources and are here arranged in opposing columns. This method of arrangement does not result in a continuous logical development of the argument on either side of the question, the aim having been rather to make a compilation of all or nearly all of the arguments then to make a consistent presentation of either side of the case. The preferential primary is not treated in these arguments because the results of experience under such a system are not available from which conclusions might properly be drawn. However many of the arguments given below regarding the direct primary might be applied one way or the other to preferential primaries.
If it was thought that the convention did not represent the will of the people a very simple remedy is at hand. Unless a candidate receive a two-thirds vote at the convention a primary could be held. Thus the primary could be used as a safety valve, as a guarantee to the people that their wishes would not be disregarded.
The argument for direct primaries is based upon the assumption that the voter is either corrupt or ignorant; corrupt in that he has used his vote in violation of his duty or ignorant in that he has unknowingly let himself be used by unscrupulous politicians. If this be the case it is a condition which a mere change in nominating machinery will not remedy.
As the number of voters who participate in the caucus under the convention system is not a matter of record no accurate comparison can be made. But it is a matter of fact that at the last general election in the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oregon, typical primary states, the total vote for governor at the primary was 573,254 while the vote at the general election for governor was 1,020,533.
The convention is in harmony with the representative system of government. If you abandon it in favor of the primary you are but taking the first step toward the pure democratic form of government, a form which history proves absolutely unworkable for any but the smallest political units.
The curse of the evils of bossism is not in the machinery of politics. It is chiefly in the frequency of elections and the enormous number and absurd variety of places to be filled by elections. Not more by less elections is what we want.
It must be remembered that Vermont does not have the same convention system that many of the Western states where they now have direct primaries, formerly had. Where the voters in the town elected delegates to the county convention who in turn elected delegates to the state convention which nominated the state officers. In Vermont the town elects directly the delegates to the state nominating convention and holds those delegates directly responsible. Vermont laws should be framed not to meet the needs of some far off Western state but to meet the needs of Vermont.
Where the direct primary concentrates the burden of the expense of making nominations in a few candidates, the convention scatters it among a large number of delegates who were each able and willing to stand the small expense requisite to attend the convention.
No law can be framed which will adequately limit the expenditures of candidates. Everyone knows that the active candidate begins work years before the actual campaign and if he has abundant money to spend in thus early advancing his candidacy he will spend it. Moreover there are many indirect ways of spending money which in states having the primary it has been found impossible to reach by publicity laws.
Not only is the expense of candidacy increased but the expense to the state is doubled by virtue of the fact that a second election is held. In some of the states where direct primaries are in force the states pay for publicity pamphlet advertising the merits of the different candidates and in other of the direct primary states there is an agitation for this so-called reform.
The party convention must be retained to frame the party platform. The platform should not be framed by the nominees of the party as thus they would be given all the power of the party and having been nominated the party can have no redress if the platform fails to express its principles. The people should instruct the candidates, not vica versa.
There has been a strong tendency in states having the direct primary for the party managers to submit a complete slate at the primary and through the influence of their organization to nominate it in its entirety. This practice, common in certain states makes the nomination of a candidate objectionable to the party organization a practical impossibility as he would have to build up an organization in every district throughout the state to stand a chance against the firmly intrenched party machine.
The following important elements of party success can be considered in making a well balanced ticket at a convention but not at a direct primary; geographical distribution of the candidates; their nationality; their social standing; the class represented; the commercial, industrial and agricultural interests, etc., that they stand for; the shades of political idea entertained.
The delegates to the convention being the prominent citizens of the community are likely to have been members of the legislature and thus to have become acquainted with the candidates for the minor offices who in reality conduct most of the business of the state and regarding whom the ordinary voter would have no knowledge.
The process of deliberation and debate in a convention secures an attention to all the circumstances that a primary cannot obtain. Under a primary system Seward, not Lincoln, would have been nominated in 1860. Lincoln is a typical product of the convention system.
The well-known man regardless of what he is noted for has an advantage in the race for the nomination over one better qualified but less generally known. It is notoriety and not worth that counts under the direct primary.
The people are compelled to depend almost entirely on what the newspapers say about the candidates while under the convention system the peoples' representatives at the convention meet the candidates and can form their own judgements of them.
Willingness on the part of adequate men to serve the public in office is rare enough at best, and willingness on the part of adequate men to undergo one protracted and necessarily expensive campaign of personalities for the right to undergo another protracted and expensive campaign for the right to serve the public in office is more than can be expected normally except from those at once very rich and very patriotic.
The primary makes possible the choice of a candidate by a small faction of the party decidedly in the minority. If there are six candidates and the vote is somewhat evenly divided it is possible that the highest candidate may receive not more than 17% of the total vote cast. There is not sufficient guarantee that the successful candidate really commands sufficient general support in the party to warrant his choice as a representative. Any second choice system is too complicated to receive the consideration of practical men.
The direct primary increases the power of the large towns at the expense of the small towns. At a nomination by direct vote of the people the vote for Chittenden county would be practically dominated by Burlington and Winooski and Washington county by Barre and Montpelier and similar domination by the large towns would be the result throughout the state. The vote in Essex county would be more than balanced by the vote of either Bennington, Brattleboro, or St. Johnsbury.
No plan is honest that permits a Democrat to participate in a Republican caucus, whose nominee he has no intention of supporting, or the reverse. And if you do not have such a plan you must have one whereby the voter declares in advance his political allegiance, and having done this he has lost his independence as a voter.
The direct primary, through doing away with the party convention and all the enthusiasm and sentiment created thereby, lessens party responsibility and interest and the loss of the efficiency of the party as an organization logically results.
The primary calls for another complete election and preliminary election campaign with all the waste of time and money and political turmoil entailed thereby.
There are so many candidates at the primary that the voter cannot vote intelligently on any but the most important officers.
It is a fact that in nearly every state where direct primaries are in force there have been constant and continual demands for supplementary legislation to make primaries efficient. As one writer has expressed it "it is like using drugs, the more they use the drugs the worse off they are".
The convention has always been a tool easily handled by a clever boss. By trading off minor places and by sharp practices the boss has brought the convention into disrepute as an instrument fitted to express the people's will. Even when honestly and fairly conducted, a convention gives an undue advantage to aggressive, unscrupulous men, which they would not have in a direct primary.
Direct primaries are based upon the assumption that the rank and file of the voters are honest and intelligent, and that they should each and all be allowed to express their views on all candidacies at their usual voting place instead of delegating that duty to a few delegates who, away from home and under pressure, may be led into mistakes, or worse.
It is a matter of common knowledge that only a small per cent of the voters participate in the caucus but there is a large vote at the primaries because the voters know that their vote amounts to something therefore they come out to the primary. By bringing all the candidacies before the voters at one time, state, congressional and county, the interest and vote will be larger and more representative than by handling them in sections as at present.
In this nation and in this state, the will of the people is and should be the supreme law; and that that will may be made effective you need public officers who owe their nomination as well as their election directly to the vote of the people.
We are using 19th century machinery to nominate officers under 20th century conditions. The methods of politics no less than those of business must be in accord with the spirit of the times. Anything which will tend to increase interest in public officials and public affairs as does the direct primary is of inestimable benefit.
The direct primary movement is one that is sweeping the country. Vermont is out of step with the march of progress and it is high time she got in line.
Any indirect method of representation destroys responsibility. The management of caucuses and conventions has become so complicated that they are practically removed from popular control and fall into the hands of professional politicians.
The delegates elected to attend upon the nominating convention are confronted with the expenditure of a considerable sum of money and still further contribution of time to make a journey to the place of holding the convention. They must undertake this expense either from a pure loyalty to party, devotion to the interest of some candidate or because they personally aspire to receive some political preferment, and regard the time and money spent in the light of a political investment.
Under the convention system it is a matter of common report that large sums of money have been expanded. A primary law properly guarded by requiring publicity and limitation of campaign expenses would make clear to everyone just how the money was spent, and that in itself would cure the extensive and improper use of money.
It is quite proper that the state should bear the expense of candidacy in a measure and one of the principal evils of the convention system lies in the fact that the candidate must pay his own expenses or allow them to be paid by some interests under obligation to who he will thereby be placed.
A convention composed of all of a party's candidates would make a platform which would be more binding upon them than a platform made by a convention of which they were not members.
Granted that the party managers do submit a complete slate; under the primary system the people have the chance to reject it, while under the convention they do not.
The one test we should apply to candidates for office is, can he do the work required honestly and efficiently? Whether he lives in one end of the state or the other is not a common sense, business like requirement. What the state needs is genuine service, not a lesson in geography, social standing or commercial interests.
In Vermont the minor officers are town, village and city officials, and in these cases we have a fairly good primary system now. In this state the direct primary should apply to state, congressional and county officials only, and every voter should have the right to pass on every one of these nominations.
The talk of the "calm and deliberate judgement" of the convention is pure farce. What more disorderly, more turbulent, and generally uproarious assembly can one imagine than the average political convention?
To say that the people of Vermont would elect a man merely because he had some notoriety strongly questions their good sense, to say the least. And it is a fact that the men who are well known are those who in turn know the state well, its conditions and needs.
The newspapers are one of the greatest powers in modern life and they will exercise their power regardless of what nominating system we have.
It can be well argued that unless a man has interest enough in a governmental office to work to get it, he isn't the man we want for that office. We want men in office who are interested in their work. There is no difference between the two systems in the length of campaign or in the expense. There was probably never a primary campaign in the country so expensive in proportion to the area and population of the state as was the convention campaign of Vermont in 1902.
Under the convention system it often happens that candidates are nominated who receive no votes whatever in the caucuses, but are put in through manipulation and trading, regardless of any expression at all on the part of the voters. The primary system gives the majority a much better chance of forcing their will than any other system ever introduced.
The direct primary does not weaken the power of the small town. It strengthens the power of the individual voter, and aids the rank and file both in the small towns and in the large ones. The only power weakened is that of the bosses, the political worker, and the selfish interest. Under the present convention system a small town sends one, two or three delegates to a convention, held in a city or large town. On these delegates is massed all the pressure that the big town, the big interests and the big politicians can produce. Under a direct primary the voters go to their regular polling place and vote their preference without outside pressure, and manipulation.
Our political life is largely dominated by parties and so a man must as a practical means of making his will felt, ally himself with one party or another. Any man who refuses such a simple requirement as that should not complain if he is no better off under the present nominating system.
The argument that the primary destroys the party power is based on theory and not on experience. For it is a fact that in the states where direct primaries are in force parties are as strongly entrenched as ever.
The primary system substitutes for the elaborate system of unregulated caucuses and conventions a simple method of nominating all officers at one election.
Primaries enlarge the field of public service by increasing the range of men who can have hope of getting into office. And it is not a fact that the voters of Vermont are so unintelligent as to be unable to choose their officers.
Direct primaries have called for no more supplementary legislation than have caucus and convention systems. The only difference is, that as the primary system is newer, supplementary legislation is more recent and therefore more prominent in the public mind. Then too, we must remember that the direct primary laws in some states were prepared by those who opposed them, driven to it by public pressure. There is no serious trouble in states like Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and others where the primary laws have been written by friends of the system and not mutilated by enemies in the course of enactment.
This page was last updated on: 2012-03-26.