The nation had its first primary elections of 2018 on Tuesday in Texas. Much of the media’s focus has been on whether a “blue wave” will sweep the nation. Meanwhile, Republicans assert that Texas still has a deeper shade of red than any other state.
But there is something very important missing from the conversation: Whether a Texas voter is Republican, Democrat, independent, or a member of a third party, the meaningfulness of his or her vote depends on the party he or she belongs to.
That is what happens when you have an electoral system that was molded by two private political corporations -- the Republican and Democratic Parties -- to put their interests first and block out competition. This is also why we need to re-evaluate how we view election reform and voter rights in the US.
Texas Primary: The Few Deciding for the Many
Texas is a good example of how the current electoral systems in most states don't actually serve the interests of voters, and the choices of millions of voters don't really matter.
We live in a country where an overwhelming majority of seats for state and federal legislative bodies are “safe” for the incumbent or the party of the incumbent -- over 90 percent in Congress for most elections. There are a number of reasons why this is:
- Extreme partisan gerrymandering.
- A system that from the very beginning -- the party primaries -- tells voters that they only have two choices, red or blue.
- Taxpayer-funded primaries that serve the private purpose of picking party-first candidates rather than the public purpose of narrowing the field to the choices that will offer the best representation.
- Restrictive election laws that keep independent and third party candidates from being competitive.
- A “winner takes all” voting method ensures that the media only pays attention to the top-two candidates.
It shouldn't be a surprise that most races are uncompetitive. But this also means that the party primaries are where most elections are decided -- not the general election. This is very important to understand because it has some serious consequences for our republic.
When elections are decided in party primaries, the most hardcore of a party's base pick the winner. When party loyalists pick the winner, the person elected ends up putting the party's needs above the needs of their constituents.
It also means that in many instances half or less of the people who turnout for the November election are picking who represents all voters.
In Texas, Tuesday's turnout was just under 17 percent statewide for both parties, which is not a huge bump from the last midterm election year. Turnout in the Republican primary was 10.10 percent of the registered voting population, while turnout for the Democratic primary was 6.8 percent.
This means that even less of the registered voting population picked the winner in these races, and on top of that, the further down the ballot we go, the less people participate.
Let's look at incumbent US Senator Ted Cruz for a moment.
He won the 2018 primary easily, garnering nearly 85% of the vote -- one of the perks of being an incumbent.
However, in 2012, he came in second in the primary election, but was able to force a summer runoff and get enough of his supporters out to beat then-Lt. Governor David Dewhurst in an extremely low turnout contest -- 8.5% of Texas voters turned out.
There were virtually no political pundits in Texas that gave the Democratic candidate in the 2012 US Senate race a chance. The candidate was often referred to as the "sacrificial lamb" and the winner of the Republican primary was pretty much guaranteed to win in November.
So, Cruz only needed around 4 percent of the voting population in Texas to secure a win -- 4 percent!
Forget whether you like Ted Cruz or not. That’s not the point. The fact that a candidate can “win” an election by catering to just 4% of the electorate is a serious problem that doesn't get near enough attention.
And don’t forget - the same thing happens in heavily Democratic districts.
Whose Vote Actually Counts?
As we think about elections in Texas and other states, one of the fundamental questions that needs to be answered is: Who is a representative accountable to?
In heavily gerrymandered states with partisan primaries --- it’s not the electorate --- it’s the partisan base.
That means, the only voters who really matter are members of the Republican Party in a Republican district or the Democratic Party in a Democratic district.
So, let's look at Texas congressional districts.
Texas has 36 US House seats. It is the second-largest state both in geographical size and population. Yet only one House seat has been consistently competitive in recent elections, and could potentially change parties in 2018 -- the 23rd Congressional District.
Everything else has a solid coat of red or blue painted on it.
In these heavily-gerrymandered districts, voters in the political minority have virtually no voting power.
For instance, in a solid Democratic district that is guaranteed to go blue, if you vote in the Republican primary or plan to vote for a candidate outside the Democratic Party in the general, the vote you cast won't affect anything. The Democrat is going to win. Thus, the only voters who matter are Democrats.
And the same works in solid Republican districts that use partisan primaries. More voting power is given to Republican voters over everyone else.
This system is demonstrably unfair, and does not promote equality for ALL voters.
Understanding The Right to Vote
Texas has an open partisan primary system, which means any registered voter can participate. Voters do not declare party affiliation when they register to vote. BUT, a voter does have to choose one party or the other to participate in the primary election.
Other states are more restrictive, and have semi-closed or closed partisan primaries that place limitations on which voters can participate.
In some states, it is up to the parties to decide. In others, you have to join a private political party as a condition of participating in the taxpayer-funded primary election..
In New Jersey, for instance, voters outside the major parties have to change their party affiliation in order to participate in the primaries. A national coalition led by the Independent Voter Project -- and included 7 New Jersey voters -- filed a lawsuit in 2014, challenging this primary system.
The argument the coalition made was simple: forcing a voter to join a private organization as a condition of participating at an important stage of the election process violates our First Amendment right of non-association.
In other words: You shouldn’t have to join a party to vote.
Then-Secretary of State and Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, however, argued that voters who feel disenfranchised by the system should "simply join a party." And the court -- comprised of party-appointed judges -- agreed!
Think about that for a second, with the first Amendment in mind. You have to join a private party to exercise your full right to vote.
Imagine if you had to join one of only two state-sanctioned churches in order to practice religion!
More people are starting to look at elections and voting rights in these terms. It's not about which party benefits from the reform, as the parties, their candidates, and media talking heads look at it. What matters is does it strengthen the vote for ALL voters.
It's time to move away from a system that serves parties first, to a system that serves voters first.