This article was published by KENI Radio, on September 8, 2014:
What’s the use of holding primary elections? Most races on last month’s ballot were uncontested. The only interesting choice voters had, if they were allowed to choose the Republican ballot, was in the U.S. Senate race, but even that may have been counter-productive. As soon as Dan Sullivan was nominated, Sen. Mark Begich attacked him using statements from his primary opponents. Further, there was no certainty that the primary election would be conclusive. It wasn’t last time, in 2010. Thankfully, Joe Miller issued a statement last week disavowing any intention to run a write-in campaign, as Sen. Lisa Murkowski did against him. So the primary election wasn’t a complete waste of effort. Only mostly.
Three winners on the non-Republican ballot, however, just made a mockery of primary elections. By dissolving the Democratic ticket for governor, Byron Mallott challenges the very purpose of holding a primary election. Supposedly, primaries are an antidote to the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where party elites would dole out nominations. Asked last Tuesday if he was ignoring the democratic process, Mallott said his decision to form a “unity” ticket was supported by voters, namely the Democratic Party Central Committee. They voted, didn’t they? And their room wasn’t smoke-filled. (Maybe incense-filled?) Mallott said he wrestled with the decision, and I don’t doubt him, but not because of his allegiance to primary election results. He led Murkowski’s write-in campaign in 2010, so he clearly doesn’t respect the primary as a vehicle for selecting candidates.
The withdrawal of Vic Kohring as the Alaska Independence Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate shows a similar disregard for primary elections. Kohring says dropping out will leave more votes for Dan Sullivan, but that much was clear before the primary. He knew it, and AIP voters knew it, too, but they didn’t join a third party to help a mainstream party get elected. Kohring’s decision is not unique, though: the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Kansas is trying the same strategy, throwing support behind a more electable independent challenger to the incumbent Republican. In Kansas, though, the ballot switching law allows candidates to withdraw only if they are “incapable” of holding office, a technicality the Kansas Secretary of State is using to keep the Democrat on the ballot. The interpretation may be partisan, but the law sounds sensible.
The Libertarian nominee in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race probably has a good excuse to withdraw, given his stated work-related conflicts, but that situation highlights yet another problem with primary elections. Alaska Libertarian officials said they had never heard of Thom Walker, and he REGISTERED with the party only recently. Reminds me of the 1998 election. No, not the GOP rescinding its support from John Lindauer for governor (though that’s an example worth recalling). Rather, I’m thinking of how the AIP disavowed its nominee, Sylvia Sullivan. Sylvia who? That’s what the AIP was asking, too. She had nothing to do with the AIP until, as she said, she read the platform and liked what it said, so she filed to run for governor. Party officials had no way to vet her, just like Thom Walker was an unknown quantity. Primaries are supposed to let voters bypass the party bosses, but when it actually happens, it ain’t pretty.
For all that, primary elections seem like more trouble than they’re worth. Even when they work properly, they are essentially state-funded favors to political parties, doing the parties’ business on the state dime. As Bill Walker demonstrated, candidates can bypass the primary altogether and remain credible in a statewide race. Even in a state house race in Southeast, an independent is out-spending the Republican who won a three-way primary (and did not, as I reportedly erroneously, win her seat automatically), and he’s appearing on only one ballot this year. At this rate, we could abolish primaries entirely. Makes more sense to vote once and go to the trouble of a second ballot only if necessary, which would be relatively rare. Further, Instant Run-Off Voting would eliminate the need for a second visit to the polls. Short of voting by brain scan, that might be the only way to prevent post-primary shenanigans.