Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rethinking Ballot Access

We here in Maine nominate our presidential candidates through the caucus/convention process. With that one exception, all other partisan candidates are nominated through primaries. Since our primaries only a few weeks away, lawn signs are popping up here like mushrooms after wet weather. We have five Democrats (one a write-in) and seven Republicans running at the moment, so you can imagine the crop of signs, most of which will be useless (OK, I’ll admit I save the wickets) after the primary.

It occurs to me that, in a time when state budgets are squeezed between a rock and a hard place, when state funding for education is cut forcing local property taxes to make up the difference, when workers are looking at pay cuts, we need to take a long, hard look at our system of primaries.

In 2007, Maine’s Secretary of State considered asking the legislature to cancel the state-funded primaries which, at the time, cost an estimated $300,000. Primaries are strictly partisan activities, and forcing all the voters (including those ineligible to vote in a primary) to pay for them is just plain unjust.

So what’s the answer? Ask the state party organization to pony up the cash? I doubt they could here in Maine. I believe the solution is to look to Utah, in which candidates are chosen in county and state nominating conventions made up of delegates chosen at the local level.

I realize some of you will disagree, and disagree strongly. “Caucuses are inherently undemocratic,” you will say.

Having participated in many of them, I would have to disagree. Any member of the party is invited, public notice is a requirement, and those who cannot be there have the same right to vote absentee as they would in a primary. Becoming a delegate is easy (even in 2008 every alternate ended up being upgraded to delegate), and anyone who can’t afford the $38 cost can get the fee waived. I realize that lots of folks feel that caucuses are some sort of smoke filled room with access granted only to party “insiders” but that honestly hasn’t been my experience. In Maine, spend an afternoon helping stuff envelopes, and you become an insider, I guess.

Nominating through the caucus/convention route would also reduce the cost of getting onto the November ballot enormously, thus empowering candidates who prefer to rely more on small donors than on large corporations.

Finally, particularly in a party which takes grassroots organizing seriously, there would be the great benefit of increased, very personal, participation in the process of choosing a candidate. Attending a caucus where you have a chance to discuss your candidate of choice, and attempt to convince your neighbors to support that candidate, is a wonderful experience and leads to increased levels of volunteerism between nomination and the general election in November. Having volunteers creates more of a level playing field for candidates who don’t want to be beholden to large donors.

So….the cost is lower, both for candidates and taxpayers. Participation is open to the same group of party-affiliated voters who now are permitted to vote in primary elections. Candidates will not need as much corporate money to get on the ballot, since their campaigns will be volunteer-powered (if they prefer to work with the grassroots).

Sounds good to me!

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