Partisan Elections: Not All Voters are Created Equal

A Texas voter went to his local polling location to vote in the most recent primary election. As he waited in line, he had a decision to make. He knew who he wanted to support in the first stage of the voting process; he read the voter guides from various local newspapers and educated himself on the candidates. However, the biggest decision he needed to make was, what races would he have the most meaningful participation in?

Texas has an open partisan primary system. Voters do not have to declare party affiliation when they register to vote and voters outside the Republican and Democratic parties can participate in the primary process, but they must choose a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot. They cannot cross party lines to vote for a candidate in the other party, and they must stick with the selected party in the event of a primary runoff.

This Texas voter is not a Republican. He is not a Democrat. He is an independent voter. There isn’t a third party he can get behind because most third parties focus only on a handful of issues or cater only to a fringe segment of the voting population.

The voter knew Republicans he wanted to vote for in some races, but there were Democrats he wanted to see advance to the general election in others. He could have chosen not to participate in either party’s primary and held off to take part in the petition drive of an independent candidate, but the odds are always slim that a candidate he can agree with will emerge and this route limits his participation in the process exponentially.

 

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So, though the independent voter wanted to see candidates in both parties advance to the general election in different races, he was left with a difficult decision. He can’t show support for all the candidates he wants to under the current primary rules, and the party ballot he chooses will ultimately determine which races he will have a more meaningful voice in.

The fundamental choice the voter has to make is which races he wants to have a more meaningful voice in: statewide races or local races?
The voter is a resident of Dallas County. Like any other major metropolis in the U.S., Democrats tend to do better in local races in Dallas than Republicans. In fact, according to the voter guides the independent voter read before arriving at his polling location, there were some county races that had a contested Democratic primary, but there were no Republicans running for the office.

So, in the November election, a handful of races went uncontested, meaning the winner of the Democratic primary was the de facto winner of the election, though the argument could certainly be made that he or she would have been the de facto winner even if they had a Republican challenger. So, any voter who did not participate in the Democratic primary in Dallas County was left with no real options in these elections.

In order to ensure that he has a meaningful say in who ends up winning local races, including the state legislative race in his district, the voter could choose the Democratic ballot in a primary election, but by doing so, he essentially forfeits his right to have a legitimate say in statewide races where the winner of the Republican primary is the odds-on favorite to win in November.

Texas is still a “deep red” state. Though the electoral landscape is slowly shifting, the Republican Party still has an overwhelming advantage in races for the state’s executive branch. The independent voter knows there are even a couple of statewide races each election year that, much like some local races, end up not having a challenger from the minority party. Any voter who does not participate in the Republican primary is left with no real options in these elections.

The voter argues that his vote in local races should carry the same weight as his vote in statewide races, something he believes the current system denies many voters in Texas.

“Shouldn’t every voter have equal say in who represents them at all levels of government?” He asked.

His friends suggested that he choose the Republican ballot to have a greater say in elections that are considered “more important” and then just write in a candidate in down ballot races that are uncontested.

“The only way I can have a ‘meaningful’ voice in these elections is to essentially throw away my vote?” He remarked. “Is that what having ‘meaningful participation’ really means?”

These type of situations emerge in closed and semi-closed primary systems as well. The only difference is, in open partisan primaries, voters outside the parties are given a little more choice, but the choice is still severely limited. Their participation is still limited so that the emphasis remains on private political parties, not voters.

As the nomenclature suggests, all partisan primary systems put parties first and voters second.

The independent voter believes elections should put voters first. He believes every voter should have an opportunity to have an equal voice in elections; not just him, but the Republican in the electoral district that heavily favors Democratic candidates, or the Democrat voting in a rural, Republican-leaning district, or the voters outside the major parties who are offered only the illusion of choice, if a choice at all.

So why not put all races and candidates on a single ballot in the first integral stage of the public election process? Why not give every voter an opportunity to have full participation in all races instead of making them choose which elections they want “meaningful” participation in? Why, in a system that is supposed to put voters first, are voters forced to make this decision in the first place? Why is their participation limited to such an extreme degree?

The independent voter may not always have a candidate he can fully get behind in a race, but he understands this. The ideal candidate rarely gets involved in the process; that is just how it is. The Republican and Democratic parties have roots so firmly embedded into the foundation of American politics that the two-party system they created will likely not go away in the foreseeable future — but it can be improved.

The point the independent voter is concerned with is how each vote measures up. On a scale, does his vote counterbalance the vote of a neighbor or a coworker or the stranger standing next to him when it really counts in every election? Does his neighbor truly have as much of a say as he does in who represents their electoral district, instead of just being given the illusion of choice? Do all votes carry equal weight?

To him, these are the questions that need to be answered when considering an electoral system that gives every voter full, meaningful, AND equal participation, and when comparing current election systems to determine which one better protects the rights of voters.

What does it mean to have 'meaningful' participation in elections?

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