The Virginia Primary Ballot and the Absurdity of the System

Several candidates did not submit a completed application on time to qualify for Virginia's Republican primary ballot.

As Doug noted earlier this morning, several candidates did not submit a completed application on time to qualify for Virginia’s Republican primary ballot.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (“Bachmann, Huntsman, Santorum not on Va. primary ballot“):

Four Republican presidential candidates – Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Ron Paul — submitted paper work in time to qualify for Virginia’s March 6 primary ballot.

No other GOP contender will be on the Virginia ballot. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman did not submit signatures with Virginia’s State Board of Elections by today’s 5 p.m. deadline.

Those who submitted the required signatures must clear another hurdle. The Republican Party of Virginia has until Tuesday to certify which candidates qualify.

Romney was the first Republican presidential candidate to file his petitions. His Virginia campaign chairman, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, delivered them on Tuesday. President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign filed earlier this month.

The most obvious point here is that Romney, Gingrich, Perry, and Paul would seem to have better campaign organizations than the other candidates. Even Gingrich, whose ability to get on the ballot in several states had been in question, managed to pull this off. (Although, as Doug also noted, Gingrich and Perry could still be disqualified.)

The more interesting and important point, though, is the absurdity of the process.

It’s a core teaching of American Politics 101 classes that there are no national elections in the United States. President of the United States and Vice President of the United States are national offices but we elect our presidents and vice presidents via 51 state elections (counting DC, per the 23rd Amendment), each of which (as we learned quite painfully following the 2000 election) have their own rules.

The primaries are even more bizarre. Despite the fact that we’re choosing candidates for a national office, we have an arcane process wherein the two major parties set rules and then try to enforce them on 50-plus states, districts, and territories–often without much success. The various states and other delegate-awarding entities are in competition with each other for influence on the process. Those entities must contend with the traditions that put Iowa and New Hampshire in an absurdly favorable position and where South Carolina thinks it’s next in line. And, inexplicably, each of the entities sets conditions for ballot access that seem quite whimsical and have little relation to the national race and on timetables that have no real relation to the increasingly fluid primary calendar.

That the two major political parties don’t control the primary calendar for nominating their candidates is beyond silly. Worse, however, is the fact that they don’t even control who’s on the ballot for their highest office. In a rational system, candidates would simply have to qualify one time to get on the Republican presidential ballot. Instead, candidates have to spend an absurd amount of time and money getting petitions signed and jumping through other hoops set by states and other delegate-awarding entities.

It’s madness.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Politics 101, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Virginia’s ballot access laws are among the most stringent in the country, especially for statewide races, with the requirement of not only 10,000 valid signatures in toto but at least 600 valid signatures from each of the 11 Congressional Districts. As I noted in my post, Perry and Gingrich are so close the line on the 10k signature requirement that they might be in danger of not making the ballot after verification is done early next week. In all likelihood, though, the Virginia GOP will be as generous as legally possible to make sure that doesn’t happen. The embarrassment of only having Romney and Paul on the March 6th ballot is probably something they don’t want to deal with.

    I’m not sure about the idea of national standards for ballot access, especially since this is an area that the Constitution reserves to the state. Nonetheless, as a general principle I think getting on a primary ballot at least should not be nearly as difficult as Virginia makes it.

  2. In a rational system primaries would be assigned dates by lottery, and NOT by the “two major parties.”

    (Lottery rules could for instance have 5 dates, and assign similar populations to each of the dates, by a random process.)

  3. One correction: the Virginia rule is 400 valid signatures per district, not 600. The Richmond Times-Dispatch is mistaken. Which is not surprising.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Primaries are party elections, so parties should set the rules. I’d prefer either a national primary with run-off or a multi-stage process with states in regional blocks that rotate every cycle. So, if there are 5 cycles, every region would go first every five cycles.

  5. @James Joyner:

    Sorry James, open primaries blew that out of the water. Primaries are now a contest between Parties, and thus any requirement that they agree sets you up for gridlock.

    (And of course even before open primaries there was the necessity of economic efficiency.)

  6. @john personna:

    Open primaries are becoming a rarity, which is as it should be I would submit. Crossing party lines to vote in an opposing party’s primary doesn’t strike me as particularly fair play.

  7. Peter says:

    @James Joyner:
    “Primaries are party elections, so parties should set the rules”

    First things first. When parties will foot the whole bill for their primaries, then they can set the rules.

  8. @Peter:

    Totally true. I touched on that with “economic efficiency”, but what James and Doug are really arguing is … let’s face it, party politics as rent seeking. The state, they argue, should do what’s best for the entrenched parties.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I’m simply arguing that party primaries are the means by which parties select candidates for the general election and have become an entrenched part of the American political process. It simply doesn’t make sense for 50 states plus various other entities to set the rules for that process independently.

    Indeed, I’m not sure that Congress rather than the states shouldn’t set the rules for general elections for Congressional and Presidential elections. But the Constitution, written for a completely different political reality, says otherwise and entrenched interests will prevent amending it to fit the new reality.

  10. Barb Hartwell says:

    I wish they would make it simpler by doing it the same way every where, and every time, but I keep forgetting we can`t find 2 people to agree on anything anymore.

  11. Barb Hartwell says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I disagree about the fairness of open primaries.Each party has their turn and everyone in this country is concerned who will be the president and if it affects everyone, then they all should have a vote.

  12. @Barb Hartwell:

    I think Doug is wrong on both counts, about open primaries being less democratic and about them receding.

    Parties should want to know who there best prospects are for the general election. Open primaries produce that answer.

    (Spoiler votes, if you worry about them, might be as likely now, as people vote “left over” party registration rather than current affinity. After all, I’m registered Republican. Do you want me in that primary? Oddly, even if I do vote for the Republican I like most, that might be a spoiler in some sense. If say, there is little chance of me going for the same guy in the general.)

  13. John,

    At least one or two states that used to have open primaries have begun the process of changing that.

    Also, the purpose of a primary isn’t, I would submit, to be “democratic,” it is to choose the nominee of a specific political party. Allowing independents and members of other parties to participate in that process defeats that purpose, IMO.

  14. The purpose of these tough ballot access laws is to prevent third parties from being able to challenge the two major parties. We’ve had a similar issue here in Pennsylvania, where the past few elections for Governor, the Democrats always successfully challenge the Green Party’s signatures and the Republicans always successfully challenge the Libertarians’ signatures. Indeed, there have been several cases where there have been organized efforts by the major parties to get thier supports to put fake signatures on the nominating petitions for third parties and then point out these fake signatures as part of a court challenge.

    So with regard for the situation in Virgnia, I see this as Bachmann, Huntsman, and Santorum getting hoist by their own petard; I have no sympathy for them whatsoever.

  15. @James Joyner:

    I oppose a national primary. The media already has too much control over deciding who gets to be considered a “serious” candidate, and a national primary would mean there’s absolutely no reality check on their pronouncements until the election is over.

  16. @john personna:

    Here’s another thought. Why should taxpayers pay for what really ought to be a private process – the selection of a political party’s nominee. Earlier this year, there was some discussion in South Carolina of holding a caucus instead of a primary because the state was unwilling to put up the money involved in running a statewide primary. It is, I think, a totally valid concern.

  17. @Doug Mataconis:

    Also, the purpose of a primary isn’t, I would submit, to be “democratic,” it is to choose the nominee of a specific political party.

    Surely that deserves a cognitive dissonance merit badge 😉

  18. It’s madness.

    Agreed.

    BTW, in regards to a few point above:

    1) I would have to double check, but I do think Doug is wrong about open primaries receding.

    2) The fact of the matter is (and contra something James said above): primaries have not been fully run by parties since perhaps the late 19th/early 20th centuries (and that, of course, predates there usage as significant players in the presidential nomination process). They have long been a mix, for good or ill, of federal, state, and party rules.

    We need serious reform of this process, as I have argued before, but we are unlikely to get it.

  19. @john personna:

    No, it really doesn’t. What is wrong with a party wanting to restrict the people who select its nominee(s) to people who are supporters of said political party?

    Nothing wrong about that.

  20. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Perhaps I’m mistaken on that point, I’m mostly working from memory on that one.

  21. @Doug Mataconis:

    The dissonance revolves around the role of a party in a democracy. Which one serves the other?

  22. @Doug Mataconis: As am I, so I could be wrong (plus I have in my head the issue of open/closed primaries that includes non-presidential ones).

  23. John,

    Political parties are private organizations that should set their own rules and not rely on the taxpayers to pay for the process by which their candidates are selected.

    That doesn’t mean no primaries, mind you, just that the political parties should be compensating the state for what is, in the end, a private affair.

  24. @Doug Mataconis:

    What is their mission Doug?

    Are parties out for self interest, or enlightened self interest in a democracy?

    See, I think what you’ve taken to through your comments, the theme, is that parties serve themselves, and we’d be fools to think they serve democratic principles.

  25. (Though, again, an open primary which picks the candidate most likely to win the general, does in fact serve the practical interest of the party.)

  26. @Doug Mataconis:

    Political parties are private organizations that should set their own rules

    The problem is, this is not true. The Supreme Court has, on numerous occasions, regulated party primaries and the rules used in them. They are not fully private entities that can set their own rules. Further, the fact that they use state governments to conduct their primaries underscore that they are a hybrid type of organization that is not fully private. If they were truly private then primary voters would have to go to private, party offices to vote in primaries (and probably have to pay a fee to do so). There are places around the world where this is the case, btw.

    I have some research on this somewhere, which I will endeavor to locate.

  27. @john personna:

    Again, I would submit that political parties are private entities unified around a loose set of political principles. If you’re going to say that anyone can participate in the candidate selection process regardless of their fidelity to the party, then why have political parties to begin with?

  28. @Doug Mataconis:

    I would submit that political parties are private entities unified around a loose set of political principles. If you’re going to say that anyone can participate in the candidate selection process regardless of their fidelity to the party, then why have political parties to begin with?

    But, fundamentally, the barriers to “joining” the party in terms of a closed primary and an open primary are not especially different. The only real additional barrier is time (and depending on the state in question, it may not even be that). We have to remember that party “membership” in the US is a pretty fluid, low barrier to entry affair.

    Further (and I will have to look up the lit) but the evidence as I understand it suggests that the kind of outcomes one gets in a closed v. open primary are not as stark as you are suggesting.

  29. Steven,

    That may well be the case, but then the question is whether a political party should be required by state law to allow people who are not registered members of the party (admittedly not a major hurdle to overcome) from participating if the wish to hold a primary?

  30. Barb Hartwell says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Doug I see where you are coming from but as an independent most times I get no vote. This is my country and I would try to do what is best. for the country. I was never into politics so I did not know all the rules I thought if you were independent you were able to vote for anyone. I was wrong. I like to vote for who I like, not a party.

  31. @Barb Hartwell:

    That’s what General Elections are for. Before the 1960s we didn’t have any real primaries at all.

  32. @Doug Mataconis:

    That may well be the case, but then the question is whether a political party should be required by state law to allow people who are not registered members of the party (admittedly not a major hurdle to overcome) from participating if the wish to hold a primary?

    Yes, but the point is this: the act of registering on a card (closed primary) or selecting a democratic or republican ballot (open primary) are essentially the same act: temporary declaration of “membership” in a given party for the purpose of voting in the primary. There is no real distinction in terms of amount of loyalty or, well, much of anything else, between the two.

    Apart from the fact that one is done in advance (although how far in advance varies by state, and some state have, if memory serves, election day registration) then what is the real difference between the two? Both allow the same thing; the right to vote in one primary on primary day.

  33. @Doug Mataconis:

    That’s what General Elections are for. Before the 1960s we didn’t have any real primaries at all.

    For the sake of clarity: we did for non-presidential elections (really since the early 20th century).

    And in terms of presidential contest, I think that 1972 was the first where the primaries were key to selecting presidential candidates (prior to that they were “beauty contests” that were seen as general indicators of candidate strength in advance of the conventions).

  34. Lomax says:

    I look wistfully at Johnson, Nixon, Reagan: what I wouldn’t give to have any one of them as president again.

  35. Buffalo Rude says:

    James, I think you’re missing the big/small picture. State parties are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the national party. If anything, they are affiliates. There is obviously a lot of coordination and common goals within the two groups and the executive levels of both entities are catering to, roughly, the same people, but the state and local parties are in no way controllable by the national parties in a manner to which they could standardize primary elections. At least in NY (a vile and disgusting state when it comes to primaries), they aren’t. Do you think the Democrats and GOP in Iowa are gonna give up their precious caucus in order to streamline the rules for candidates? Every state and state party has procedures and rules they, as entities of the states they operate in, abide by and sometimes cherish. There is no way to get national coordination without a straight-up nationalization of the voting process – a bad idea, in most instances, IMO.

    Frankly, this reeks more of managerial and organizational incompetence on the part of the excluded candidates. Given the clown show this primary has been, I can’t say it surprises me much. Yeah, lots of different states have lots of different rules (wacky, nefarious and/or otherwise). But, a presidential primary campaign is the big leagues and these arcane rules are not secrets. If you want to compete in a particular state’s/party’s primary process, you have to compete by that particular state’s/party’s rules.

    Personally, I’m trying to decide if this incident is more embarrassing than Hillary Clinton’s advisors not knowing about the winner-take-all rules in the CA primary in 2007 or not. At least Clinton’s people made sure she was on the ballot.

  36. mike says:

    on another note – that is really an unflattering picture of Newt – he looks pregnant – he really needs to wear a corset.

  37. Ruthy says:

    @James Joyner: This is so interesting. I lived in VA most of my life, went to college at Baylor in TX, then moved back for a time and worked as a RN in VA. I was directly effecting the lives of VA school students and it only took a simple application and a small sum of money to take my LA license recognizing it as an equal preparation for the license and I actually was licensed in about 2 weeks time in VA. I did not even have to live there immediately, just needed the license to get a job with a public school system. Yet it is so incredibly complicated to get some realistic candidates for President who have been through around 13 debates to be recognized nationally by the debate sponsors, usually media groups, as persons who should be voted for or against to be the President. It should be as simple as qualifying in one state, and then having a system of reciprocity as they do in most licensing boards that there is equal nationally recognized licensing and the person/nurse has an equal basis for being recognized for their qualifications. If you are qualified in 1 state as a national presidential candidate, you should automatically be qualified in all 50 states + DC and simply have to apply to be on the other ballots in a simple, straight forward application and low cost fee. If the GOP voters don’t want you to be president, then they will vote and you won’t be. If they do, you should be allowed to be on the ballot since you have the evidence in 1 state that you are a legitimate candidate for the national office. It seems like we would rather have legitimate candidates fail than succeed. We should want the very best persons be voted for so we will get the best President. Lord knows our country is in desperate need for a qualified, knowledgeable person who can get us out of the mess we are currently in. I hope VA can see a need for doing this.

  38. Jib says:

    You need to separate presidential primaries from election primaries. Presidential primaries are about selecting delegates to a convention. Totally a private party affair. The parties can run that however they want. The one big scandal in all this is that we, the tax payer, has to pay for this. That is ridiculous.

    Election primaries are completely different. They are part of the democratic process and need to be run by the govt. Parties should have nothing to do with them. The scandal is that we have closed primaries that guarantee a party has candidates in the general election. There is no constitutional right for parties to even exist. There is no law against them but they should not favorable treatment.

    Election primaries should be qualifying elections. Every one goes on the ballot, everyone votes on the same ballot, top 2 move onto the general election. Parties be damn. We do this in WA state and it is slowly spreading. Has the nice effect of undermining gerrymandering. If you live in a safe repub or dem district, you can still end up with 2 repubs or dems running in the general election.

  39. @Jib:

    You need to separate presidential primaries from election primaries. Presidential primaries are about selecting delegates to a convention. Totally a private party affair. The parties can run that however they want. The one big scandal in all this is that we, the tax payer, has to pay for this. That is ridiculous.

    You are correct in the sense that presidential primaries select delegate, not candidates, but the rest is off base. First, as you note, the taxpayers pay for presidential primaries as well (making them, by definition not a “Totally private party affair.” Also, there are plenty of things that can’t be done. For example: no poll taxes, no literacy tests, or other legal barriers to participation (share registration).