Sunday, February 7, 2010

Endorsements: Blind leading the blind?

It was recently reported that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's State Committee would not be endorsing any candidate for governor in the upcoming gubernatorial contest.  The Times Herald article indicated that 'two separate votes failed to produce the necessary two-thirds majority for any of the candidates'. 

While this outcome may be more a function of the fact that this weekend's blizzard prevented many of the committeepeople from making it to the meeting, rather than being unable to agree on any one candidate to endorse, it does raise a good question, one I've wanted to write about for awhile now:  why does either party bother to endorse candidates for a primary? Doesn't that defeat the reason we even have primaries in the first place?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the noun 'primary' in this context as "a caucus, an election in which qualified voters nominate or express a preference for a particular candidate or group of candidates for political office, choose party officials, or select delegates for a party convention".

Voters. Choose.  So...if a primary is supposed to be open, wherein any interested candidates throw their hats into the ring and allow the voters to select a winner by virtue of a majority of votes cast, why do parties go the trouble of endorsing candidates? 

The problem I and others have with the concept of 'endorsement' is  that it allows a few people -- very early in the election process - to make decisions that affect the majority, to be 'kingmakers'. While this is the very essence of the political system in general, in that we elect a few to represent the majority, it was never meant to apply to primaries. It smacks of an attempt at controlling the outcome.

Aside from other problems with the primary system (which have only been a wide national practice since about 1968), the primary election itself was meant to be an opportunity for the voters to directly express a preference and determine which candidate we the people want to 'promote' as the nominee to represent them against the other party for specific offices. Too many people blindly rely on an endorsed candidate as the only one worth considering.

I say 'blindly', because it's a mystery as far as knowing exactly what criteria these kingmakers use to evaluate candidates' worthiness and suitability for the office they are seeking.  Are there party standards? Are there individual guidelines? Are there ANY at all? Seriously - if you know, educate me. I've tried to do my homework and find out, to no avail. 

I also say 'blindly' because endorsements have become a tool that has enabled voters to be lazy and not take the time to educate themselves about individual candidates and their platforms, instead choosing to abdicate that job to committepeople, who theoretically are more informed. And maybe some are, but I know more than a few of them, and I wouldn't trust some of them to find their own way home, let alone know best who would represent my political viewpoints at any given time, especially since they're almost never seen or heard from unless it's time for them to run for re-election. 

And this isn't a swipe at committeepeople, per se;  I know several across multiple municipalities who are intelligent, involved, hardworking, and in touch with their constituents. I do trust their opinions. Unfortunately, they're in the minority. Committeepeople have other functions within their respective parties, and most perform them well. I'm suggesting endorsements shouldn't be one of them.

The problem with local committeepeople endorsing candidates in the primary is that in some instances, they are political 'insiders' who owe others political favors or loyalty, and thus vote the way they are told; support candidates who can be controlled; or who vote for whoever they think is best for the party and not necessarily what is representative of the people. 

All I've observed is that the committee people may (or may not bother to) go to a meeting where the candidate makes a brief pitch for the office - and may or may not be softballed questions - may or may not read any printed material about the candidate - and then a selection is made.  Many times, it's not unanimous. It leaves committeepeople who prefer an unendorsed candidate in the position of having to work to support the campaigns of candidates they don't believe in. It's a lot easier to do when you are asked to support a candidate in the general election that has survived the primary on his own, unendorsed, as the result of the will of the people and not the will of committeepeople.

Since it so often seems that we take these folks' advice, and vote for whomever they choose to bless with their endorsement, and then realize we don't like who we voted in or their policies or agenda (or worse, that they've turned out to be crooks), why do we continue to participate in this process and trust the judgment of people we barely know about candidates they barely know?  If we truly want more responsible people in office, people that actually represent who we are and what we stand for, why don't we eliminate the endorsement process entirely?

Frankly, I'm pretty much at the point in my own party here in Lower Providence where I want to support whomever they DON'T endorse.

It's really our responsibility as citizens to educate ourselves about anything that requires our trust or our money, and it's a responsibility we increasingly abdicate to others.  What's that old computer programming phrase, 'Garbage In, Garbage Out'??

A whole separate issue is: should whom the state committees choose to endorse, if anyone, override what each county's, borough's and township's Democrat and Republican committes would like to do?  Sometimes a local municipality wants to endorse a candidate, but the state or county level party has already chosen someone else, and they fear fallout if they are seen as being out of lockstep with the 'party line'.

I think I'd much prefer independent thinkers over mindless robots who do what they told and are too afraid to 'make waves'.  Even more, I'd prefer to see completely open primaries with no endorsed candidates. As Sarah Palin said yesterday in her speech to the tea party coalition "Contested primaries aren't civil war; they're democracy at work and that's beautiful."


Joe Keating said...

Spot on..I believe one reason why the tea party movement has gained such momentum is because voters are looking past whether they are in favor of an issue or candidate or not. They are dissatisfied with the mechanics of a political process which increasingly diminishes their influence.

Dave M said...

If my 2 cents counts for anything, I agree entirely. I always thought that was what primaries were for, a grounds up approach, choosing our representatives for the various elective offices. Instead, it does become civil war and the GREEN ballot is a prime piece of ammunition used for the endorsed candidate and against the un-endorsed in the primary. I have seen local committees split over the endorsement process so that a candidate who won the "endorsement" by one or two vote's has a primary challenge by un-endorsed candidates supported by those committee persons who preferred them over the endorsed candidate, turning committee persons against committee persons. It ain't pretty. So, open primaries,... that is "CHANGE" I can support

Anonymous said...

Could not disagree more. but since you both come from the two municipalities in a perpetual state of civil war since the 80's I understand why you both feel that way.

Susan said...

Janice, Amen!