No one has cared about the Pennsylvania presidential primary for decades. Coming as late as it does, so late on a national front-loaded primary calendar, presidential nominations in both parties have been resolved long before Pennsylvania’s primary. The Bush/McCain contest, however, holds out the promise, slim though it be, that Pennsylvania might become important in the Republican nomination race.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that thousands of state Republican primary voters cannot be sure their vote will matter. They might not matter because of an essentially anti-democratic and somewhat cynical political anachronism known as the “blind primary.”
Blind primaries are aptly named. In these primaries delegate candidates are listed on the ballot without any information regarding which presidential candidate they support. Voters are asked to vote for convention delegates--often popular and well-known public and party figures--while literally kept in the dark about delegate intentions.
Blind primaries make it difficult or impossible for GOP voters to express their presidential preferences. On April 4th Republican rank-and-file voters will select convention delegates out of congressional districts. Voters will have a choice of electing either three or four delegates, depending on the congressional district. The delegate candidates include many of Pennsylvania’s most important political, public, and economic leaders, who happen to be the choices of Republican organizations throughout the state. The implications for Senator McCain and his insurgency are ominous, since many Republican organizations have already thrown their support behind Governor George W. Bush.
Many voters, in fact, won’t have the foggiest notion of whom the presidential delegates are supporting, and even if they did, there is no guarantee or pledge that the delegates elected to the convention will support the desires of the voters of the congressional districts. More typically, voters end up casting ballots for names they recognize, which usually are the better known political and public figures in their communities.
If all of this seems troubling enough, it is not the only problem. Pennsylvania Republicans combine blind primaries with non-binding “preferential primaries,” better known as “beauty contests.” Beauty contests are top of the ticket presidential elections in the state, but the outcome of the presidential election is not linked to the selection of convention delegates
Voters participating in these beauty contests have the opportunity to express their candidate preferences by voting for a presidential nominee--but these preferences don’t determine the selection of delegates. They are merely “advisory.” In other words, they don’t count.
Presidential beauty contests coupled with blind primaries can produce the electoral perversion in which one candidate wins the popular vote, but loses the delegate vote. This is not merely an unlikely possibility. It happened in Pennsylvania in 1980 when George Bush won the popular vote convincingly over Ronald Reagan, but lost 80 percent of the delegates because voters had little clue as to the presidential choice of the delegates they elected. Amazingly, it could happen again. It is conceivable in 2000 that Senator John McCain could win the popular vote of Pennsylvania Republicans, but actually win few convention delegates.
Defenders of blind primaries argue that rank-and-file voters should contact party officials or consult “slate cards” on primary day to discover the presidential choice of delegate candidates. The other defense made for blind primaries is that Republican candidates run technically uncommitted. So once elected, they are free to support any candidate they wish at the convention.
Neither of these arguments in defense of blind primaries is convincing. Expecting voters independently to track down information about whom a delegate really supports is wildly unrealistic. Why not simply list delegate intentions on the ballot rather than burden the electorate with that task. Moreover if delegates were really uncommitted, information about whom they support wouldn’t be available anyway. John McCain might discover how really uncommitted these delegates happen to be.
These specious arguments in defense of blind primaries are really just smokescreens covering the real reason blind primaries remain a part of Pennsylvania politics. The real reason has to do with power. Blind primaries allow powerful party insiders to control the selection of delegates--while keeping rank-and-file voters in the dark. Keeping voters dumb as well as blind is what these primaries are all about.
By themselves, blind primaries amount to little more than a cynical fraud perpetrated upon Pennsylvania’s rank-and-file Republicans. Combining blind primaries with presidential “beauty contests” adds insult to the injury. First, voters are asked to cast ballots for convention delegates, but are not told whom the delegates support. Then these same voters are asked to vote in a presidential primary election that doesn’t count. It would be hard to conjure up a system that treats the electorate with more arrogant disdain than this one.
G. Terry Madonna, Director
Center for Politics & Public Affairs
Dr. Michael Young, Director
Survey Research Center
Penn State Harrisburg