The frustration of many voters over the way presidential candidates are selected has come to a head with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the presumptive nominees of their respective parties.
If this is the best we can do, maybe we should consider a better way.
As of May 3, according to fairvote.org, while some states have seen a surge in primary voters over previous years, nationwide primary turnout remains low: “At this point in the process, 30.14 percent — less than one-third of eligible voters — have participated in a primary contest. The last time both parties had competitive presidential nomination races was 2008, which saw 30.82 percent voter turnout after all states had participated.”
There is nothing about primaries or nominating conventions in the Constitution, so the process could be changed without causing additional damage to that great document. Most of what current election cycles produce is the result of rules established by each political party.
We can’t say we weren’t warned by some of our Founders about the consequences of extreme partisanship. They may not have had the Internet, but they knew history and understood human nature in ways many of us seem to have forgotten.
In Federalist Papers 9 and 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively, warned of the dangers of political factions. Thus, in the elections of 1789 and 1792, which selected George Washington, the Electoral College took care of the nominations and elections.
Hamilton and Madison didn’t hold on to their high-minded method of selecting presidents for long. Both quickly embraced partisanship with Hamilton becoming the leader of the Federalist Party and Madison teaming up with Thomas Jefferson to form the Democratic-Republican Party.
Beginning with the 1796 election, presidential candidates were selected by their respective congressional parties, or a party caucus convened by state legislatures. Before 1820, Democratic-Republican members of Congress nominated a single candidate from their party, but by 1824 that system collapsed and since 1832 the national convention has been the preferred mechanism for nominating presidential candidates.
It wasn’t until 1901 that Florida became the first state to conduct a presidential primary with voters allowed to select delegates pledged to the candidate of their choice. Other states soon followed with either primaries or, in a few cases, caucuses.
The chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago changed everything. Though he didn’t win a single primary under his own name, Vice President Hubert Humphrey won his party’s nomination. Subsequently, a panel commissioned by the Democratic National Committee and led by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider voter participation. Most opted for presidential primaries and the Republicans soon followed. By 1992, Democrats had primaries in 40 states and Republicans in 39.
In the current election cycle, there were a number of intelligent, experienced and articulate candidates who did not carry the heavy baggage of the two who emerged as frontrunners. The result makes the old smoke-filled room approach of selecting candidates seem appealing.
Perhaps a coalition of historians, former presidents and former members of Congress, who are not known for extreme partisanship, could get together and design a new system by which we choose the nominees. It might be an idea that entices more people to turn out and vote during primary season, or it could eliminate the current system entirely and replace it with one that gives us better options.
Clearly the process we have now is not working. We should be able to do better.
Readers may email Cal Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.