Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why do we have primaries?

With all the attention on the Pennsylvania primary I would think there would be some mention of Pennsylvania's history in helping create the direct primary system. Paraphrasing from an earlier post, it really is worth why we are even having a primary election in the first place. Most modern democracies in the world do not hold direct primaries like we do. It's actually kind of hard to explain the entire primary season to folks from elsewhere because it is so unlike what is done elsewhere. Not even all states in the US have primaries. The caucus system is still in use in Iowa and other places as we all re-learn every 4 years. Can you imagine a caucus system in place here? But for all the haranguing sometimes over the influence of party endorsements in selecting candidates, in most countries political parties have a much more powerful role in this initial round of candidate selection.

It turns out that the direct primary system got its start in Pennsylvania. Crawford County, Pennsylvania created the direct primary system in 1842. The local Democratic Party there had a chaotic and ultimately failed county convention that year whereupon no slate of candidates was nominated. In the machinations that followed, they ultimately dealt with the situation by implementing a novel idea of allowing all Democrats to cast equal votes for who would represent the party in elections scheduled that fall. Seems like a normal enough idea now, but it was not how things were done back then. The idea was so well liked that it transformed from a provisional measure to the permanent method of selecting party nominees. While the idea spread throughout the state and nation, it was not an overnight change. It would not be until later in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that most states converted to direct primary elections. Pennsylvania would not have a comprehensive law requiring primaries until 1913.


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