I don’t know what the best way out of the political impasse created by Michigan and Florida is. Principle says not to seat their delegations since they were warned not to move their primaries up and the candidates agreed, prior to the fact, that their delegates should not be seated. Pragmatism suggests that some compromise be found in order to prevent Democratic voters in those states from becoming alienated. But the whole brouhaha got me thinking….

Why are the states involved at all in a party’s decision procedure about its candidate for the presidency? Political parties are private organizations. When the country was founded, if I am not mistaken, there were no political parties at all. The very existence of parties was a topic of concern to 18th century thinkers. (See, for example, Federalist 10 and Hume’s essays “Of Parties in General”, “Of the Parties of Great Britain” and “Of the Coalition of Parties”.) Yet now we have a system in which the government is involved in the management of these private organizations.

I’m not arguing categorically that the government should not be involved. Given what the members of these parties are deciding, there may be a compelling public interest for the government to play a role. But there are some definite problems:

1) The problem that got me worried about this whole thing in the first place was that the government, by involvement with the parties’ candidate-selection procedures, would help cement the two-party system. If the government, on its voter registration forms, tells you you can register as a Republican or a Democrat, it might begin to seem as if these parties were mentioned in the Constitution itself! In fact, a little research has revealed to me that things are more complicated than this. Voter registration forms in different states handle the problem quite differently. In some states, such as California, you simply are invited to write in the name of whatever party, if any, you wish to be affiliated with. In others, such as New York, you are offered a list of parties from which you can check one (or decline, or write in another). In yet others, such as Florida, you can check a box for Democrat or Republican or opt to write in a ‘minor party’. And in Ohio, you don’t affiliate at all. I’m sure there are other variants, depending on whether states run primaries or caucuses, and if the former, what kind of primaries. So, in sum, I’m uncertain whether, or to what extent, the two-party system is reinforced in this way.

2) As the previous point makes clear, and as is true with all electoral matters in the US, there is great variety across the states in the degree and nature of government involvement. Some states have caucuses, some have primaries. And there are several types of primaries, too: open, closed and blanket. As far as I understand, the state legislature decides whether and what kind of primary to hold. And in the absence of a primary, the parties themselves run their caucuses (or employ other methods) to determine the delegates to the conventions that pick the parties’ presidential candidates. (Is that right? Are states involved in caucuses at all? I welcome information on this.) So, there is enormous inconsistency in whether and how the government intervenes in the affairs of a national private organization. (Imagine, say, that IBM had board members from state chapters who would elect the CEO, and some state governments insisted on certain procedures for determining the board members from that state. Outrageous, right?)

3) There is a great muddying of the waters in understanding the politics of candidate selection. The Clinton campaign, for example, is equating the Democratic party’s refusal to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates with the kind of disenfranchisement that occurred – especially in Florida – in the 2000 election. But this is nonsense. The right, if there is one, for Democrats to help select the Democratic presidential candidate (and likewise for other parties) is not part of the franchise. A political party may decide that it wants to respect the majority will of its members, or it may decide to use some other method. At the moment, as we are learning with all the talk of delegates, pledged delegates and superdelegates (the chads of this primary season), the Democratic party is very unclear on what principles it thinks should govern selection of the candidate. (And I expect we would have seen similar problems with the Republicans under like circumstances.) But whatever the best and fairest method is, it has nothing to do with political rights of the kind guaranteed by the Constitution. All of this, of course, is vastly obscured by the way in which primaries are conducted, namely, as part of government election procedures. It looks as though choice of person to be the presidential nominee for a party is the same kind of choice, and should be governed by the same rights, as the choice among the chosen candidates in the presidential election itself. But they are, in fact, quite different and it is up to the party, and not the government, to determine its methods of candidate selection.