In a column several weeks ago, I made the case that primary elections ought to be independently financed and organized. Since political parties are private organizations, I contended, how they choose their nominees for office ought to be up to them and not prescribed by law, run by the government, or paid for out of state coffers. General elections are public contests and perforce must be funded and administered publicly. But just as taxpayers aren’t forced to underwrite the balloting for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or to choose board members at Walmart’s annual shareholders’ meeting, neither should they have to subsidize the Republican and Democratic parties’ primary elections.
For much of US history, as I noted, primary elections didn’t exist. As recently as 1968, presidential primaries were held in just 15 states. It may seem a no-brainer now for parties to choose their candidates via primaries, but there are other ways to get the job done, including conventions, caucuses, and informal decision-making by party leaders behind closed doors (the once-common “smoke-filled room.”) To each method there are benefits and drawbacks. But at bottom, each method is an internal event for the benefit and convenience of a private political organization.
In other countries, it is taken for granted that the way parties come up with their standard-bearers is up to them. In Great Britain, Boris Johnson announced his resignation in July as leader of the Conservatives — and therefore as prime minister — plunging his party into an election for a new leader. After multiple preliminary rounds of voting, the choice for Conservative Party members came down to former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. On Monday, Truss was named the new Conservative leader. She was formally appointed prime minister by Queen Elizabeth on Tuesday — and then arrived at No. 10 Downing Street.
How much did the race to pick the Tories’ new leader cost British taxpayers? Not a farthing. The expense of the repeated balloting was borne by the Conservative Party, just as the Labor Party covered the costs of balloting in its leadership elections two years ago.
I asked The Telegraph’s Madeline Grant, a columnist who covers Parliament, for more details on how party elections in Britain are paid for. She explained that the candidates themselves were required to foot the bill. Each would-be Tory leader had to raise £150,000 (about $172,500) to defray the party’s electoral expenses. Candidates were permitted to raise and spend up to £300,000 (about $345,000) on their own campaigns; those who didn’t make the final round were expected to reimburse any unspent funds.
Whether the British system yields better party leaders than the US method of relying on primaries would make a great debate topic. What is not debatable is that Britons carry off the whole business in a fraction of the time that it takes America’s political parties to choose general election nominees. From start to finish, the Conservative Party will have devoted less than two months to choosing a new leader. The selection of candidates for the next US presidential election, by contrast, will consume years of campaigning and six or seven months of voting around the country before the parties’ national conventions formally endorse their nominees in the summer of 2024. It seems reasonable to assume that one reason Democrats and Republicans spend so long doing what their counterparts in Britain accomplish in weeks is that they don’t have to pay for it. If the national committees of the two major US parties had to absorb the costs themselves, they would likely find primaries a whole lot less appealing. And if the emphasis on primaries shrank, so would the length of the primary season.
Meanwhile, even in the absence of a presidential contest, taxpayers pay through the nose to fund primaries for state and local offices.
Here in Massachusetts, Tuesday’s primary will finalize the candidates to appear on the November ballot. This being Massachusetts, a state that generally worships incumbency, vanishingly few officeholders are actually facing an intraparty challenge. No member of the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation is facing an opponent, for example. The same is true for the overwhelming majority of state legislators.
Nevertheless, Massachusetts is forced to go through the motions of a primary election for every elected office. If history is a guide, only a sliver of the electorate will bother to vote, but every taxpayer in Massachusetts will help shoulder the costs.
Those costs are not trivial.
According to Debra O’Malley, director of communications for the Massachusetts secretary of state, the price tag for the primary election season that concludes today will likely top $13.5 million. That pays for printing ballots and ballot applications, as well as for postage, envelopes, and voting equipment. It covers the cost of police details, reimbursement for poll workers, municipal employees to oversee early voting, and polling place rentals. And what do Massachusetts taxpayers get for that $13.5 million (which does not extend to November’s election costs)? Not much. When all is said and done, it is likely that 80 percent of taxpayers will not have participated in the primaries. But 100 percent of the taxpayers will have had to underwrite them.
It isn’t a good system. Primary elections have their appeal, but there’s nothing appealing about spending millions of tax dollars so that political parties can choose their nominees. The Brits have this one right: Let each party sort out its slate of candidates on its own time, at its own expense, and by its own methods. We may not end up with better candidates, but we can hardly end up with worse.
Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. This column is excerpted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bitly.com/Arguable.