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Nominating Systems

By CHARLES S. MERRIAM, PH.D., LL.D. Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago

UR nominating systems have

passed through many stages of development as various social, economic and political situations were encountered. The legislative and congressional caucus were evolved; developed into the hybrid caucus; and later grew into the convention, under the pressure of Jacksonian Democracy. The originally shapeless convention gradually took form and order, but after the Civil War the new urban and industrial conditions forced a system of legal regulation of the delegate system. Later in many local communities the non-partisan primary, nomination by petition only, or proportional representation, supplanted the older methods. The direct primary also sprang up shortly after the Civil War, later as a part of the insurgent or progressive movement, and materially altered the nominating system in almost all parts of the country. Now comes the challenge of direct nomination with a demand for the abandonment of the system on the one hand, and for modifications and further developments on the other.

The writer has been asked to review the present nominating system and cheerfully does so, expressing the hope, however, that his statements will be taken not as propaganda for a special system but as an effort toward a constructive solution of a very vexed problem. We are groping our way toward the adjustment of popular control, political and governmental leadership, and technical knowledge and ability; and we find the methods of party organization and control a highly important part of the process.

OLD CONVENTION SYSTEM The direct primary was established in the United States as a protest against the unrepresentative character of the old-time convention.1 The abuses of the delegate system had produced widespread dissatisfaction and a general feeling that the nominating conventions did not reasonably reflect the will of the party. It was believed that the conventions were in many cases controlled by political bosses, and further that these bosses were either controlled by or closely allied with greedy and selfish industrial interests. It was believed that the convention system was admirably adapted to management by the "invisible government" of the industrialpolitical magnates. Numerous instances in which the public will was defied, cases of bribery and corruption of delegates, prolonged deadlocks, bitter factional struggles, bargaining and trading of offices for the support of delegates;-all contributed to the general conclusion that the convention was too remote from the party, and that its results did not fairly represent the judgment of the rank and file of the party.

Among the specific evils arising under the old convention system were:

1. The limitation of the voter's choice to a set of delegates committed to one candidate, but uninstructed for others. In such cases the candidate "traded" his delega

1 The history of this movement is traced in my Primary Elections (1909). See also my American Party System, Ch. 9 (1922); Recent Tendencies in Primary Elections in NATIONAL MUNICIPAL REVIEW, Feb., 1921.

tion for votes of delegations controlled by the country in recent years has tended other candidates.

2. The frequent appearance of the dummy local candidate who held the local delegation solely for trading purposes.

3. Delegations were seated at times by a process either of outright fraud or of indefensible trickery. From time to time large blocks of delegates were ousted from the positions to which they had been clearly elected.

At the Illinois Republican Convention held in April, 1922, the seats of practically one-half of the delegates were contested, and the decision rested in the hands of the State Central Committee. The same situation has happened repeatedly in the counties and states operating under the delegate system, and in the national convention

this situation is notorious. It led to the control of the Republican National Convention in 1912 by the Taft forces in the face of the clearly expressed will of the people indicating their desire for the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt.

4. Frequent objection was made to the qualifications of the delegates appearing in the conventions, many of whom were deemed to be unfitted for the responsible tasks devolving upon them.

5. The frequent purchase and sale of delegates to conventions; disorder and

tumult in conventions; the deliberate betrayal of trust by elected delegates were not infrequent occurrences.

By 1910 the direct primary was supported by party leaders including Roosevelt, Wilson, Hughes, LaFollette and Johnson, and had been widely adopted throughout the United States. It so happened, however, that just as the direct primary law was placed upon the statute books, the Progressive Party was formed, and many of the very persons who had championed the law were unable to make use of it. By 1916, many of the Progressives had returned to the old political parties, but in 1917 the war broke out and party divisions were minimized. A general wave of reaction sweeping over

to make the successful use of the system more difficult than in normal times.


It is important now to examine the chief lines of objection that have been offered to the direct nominating system. It is often charged that the expense of the direct primary is excessive and so great as to exclude worthy candidates and favor undesirable types. It may be observed first, that some confusion has been caused by attributing the expense of public regulation of primaries to the direct system. If the primary is to be effectively supervised by the state, whether it is held for the purpose of making direct nominations or of selecting delegates to conventions, the public expense will be about the same in either case. The rental of polling places, payment of election officials, the printing of ballots, the canvass of voters, are as expensive in one system as in the other. If all direct primary laws were repealed, and the regulated delegate system retained, the public expense would not be materially reduced.

Furthermore, as Governor Hughes has pointed out, and as practical experience shows, if there is a real contest for nomination, the expense to the candidates who are campaigning will be about as great under the delegate system as under the direct primary system. For example, the notable contest in Illinois in 1904 for the Republican nomination, in which Deneen, Lowden, Yates, Sherman and others participated, and which took on the proportions of a desperate, statewide struggle for delegates, was as expensive as any direct primary. If there is no contest, there will be no 2 NATIONAL MUNICIPAL REVIEW, X, 23 (1920).

expense, whether the primary is direct or indirect. If there is a contest, the expenditures will not vary greatly under the different systems.

There is much insincerity in the popular discussion of campaign funds, but there is little evidence to indicate, and none adequate to demonstrate that the use of wealth in direct primaries is more effective than in the election of delegates and the control of conventions. The real question is not whether the nominal campaign expenditures are larger in one system than the other, but whether plutocratic tendencies control more easily under one system than another. On the whole, the elaborate mechanism of delegates and conventions is more easily managed by special interests than is the primary. It cannot be forgotten that the conventions have often been controlled by small groups of men, representing wealth and privilege, who have bought and sold delegates like so many cattle, either by direct cash payments or by indirect but material inducements. It is true that voters may be bought and sold in direct primaries, and sometimes are, but they may also be bought and sold in electing delegates; and in addition to that the delegates may be bought and sold. In viewing campaign expenditures, it is important to consider the democratic financing of campaign funds, public aid to the conduct of campaigning, and to acquire a thorough understanding of the essential and nonessential expenses in campaigning. Our communities might save some money by abolishing the direct primary system, but they might lose more. We might also save in the short run by abolishing all types of elections, but we do not expect to economize in that fashion. A ten-year holiday in the holding of direct primaries would be a dubious saving. There is no room in

any community for wasteful expenditure of funds, but outlays for democratic operation of the government are on the whole a sound investment rather than a burdensome obligation.


The direct primary is sometimes condemned because a heavier vote is not cast in certain primaries. In many instances the primary vote is unquestionably small, although on the whole far exceeding that under the delegate plan. But to condemn the direct primary vote because all of the party voters do not participate in it, is like condemning universal suffrage because all who are eligible do not vote. In 1920 some 54 per cent of the adult citizens of the United States did not exercise the suffrage in a contest over the most important elective office in the world-the choice of the President of the United States. Hence 50 per cent of the party vote might be considered a fair proportion of the party electorate. And such a vote, or a larger percentage, is usually polled in an important election. In fact, if we consider that many who vote the party ticket do not reckon themselves as partisans, and will not openly affiliate with any party, the percentage of those voting to the available party vote is materially greater. The frequent failure of the voter to exercise his hardwon franchise is one of the surprises and disappointments of modern democracy upon which all observers have gravely commented, but in view of the newness of the vote and the recent rise of universal and compulsory education, it need occasion no surprise. The tendency is for the vote to increase steadily as men and women become accustomed to the common burdens of their common life, assumed with the adoption of self-governing forms of political organization.

Furthermore, the significance of the vote under the direct primary varies in different sections of the country or of the state. About half of the states are one-party states where the primary is of the very greatest importance, for here the election is practically decided. This list includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, and comprises more than half of the population of the United States. Many other states are preponderatingly Republican or Democratic. Of the 3,000 counties in the United States, it is safe to say that roughly half of them are one-party counties. Legislators, governors and United States senators in many parts of the country are practically chosen in party primaries. In these instances, and they are many, the primary of the majority party is of the utmost consequence, for whatever its outcome, it is not likely to be overthrown in the subsequent election. In such cases the majority primary often calls out a very large vote while that of the minor party is of less consequence and perhaps slimly attended.

Of 67 counties in Pennsylvania, there are three that have been uniformly Republican during the last eleven elections-namely, Delaware, Lancaster and Philadelphia. In addition to these, there are eleven others that have been Republican in every year except 1912. In addition to these, there are sixteen others that have been Republican ten out of eleven times. Of Democratic counties, there is one that has been unbrokenly partisan since 1859—namely, Columbia County. There are four others that have been Democratic ten times in eleven elections. The population of Pennsyl

vania in 1920 was 8,720,017. The population represented in the 35 counties which are almost invariably either Republican or Democratic was, in 1920, approximately 6,500,000. In other words, approximately two-thirds of the primary nominations in Pennsylvania were equivalent to an election. The style of nominating system in these counties and in this population is therefore a matter of fundamental interest, since the primary choices constitute the most significant agency the electorate possesses in the way of popular control.

In Indiana about half the counties are almost fixed in their party affiliations. In Illinois more than half are solely Republican or Democratic. In New York the bulk of the up-state counties are one-party counties. Further detailed analyses of counties show similar results.

The direct primary is of special importance to women voters for a very definite reason. In conventions, the number of women delegates is very small, perhaps five or ten per cent of the total number. In the primaries, however, the percentage of woman's vote is much higher-perhaps 40 per cent of the total vote. It will be some time before women are as fully represented in legislatures or conventions as are men. For the present, their influence may be much more effectively exerted under the direct primary system than under the delegate system. Curiously enough, it is proposed that just as women are given the right to vote, the system under which they might most effectively act shall be changed to one under which their influence will be less powerful. It is not surprising that alert leaders of women are found aligned against the repeal of the direct primary laws in the


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