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Why Do Some Elections Have Run-Offs?

The candidates for the Republican Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor in Texas have succeeded in producing one of the nastiest brawls in recent memory, with the nadir (so far) probably being the incumbent David Dewhurst’s cynical disclosure of the challenger Dan Patrick’s medical records. The fight is in advance of Tuesday’s primary run-off election.

Which brings me to three observations:

1. Primaries are weird elections – they are weird in the sense that while they are conducted with all the formality and order of general public elections, they are not, in fact, elections to office. They are mechanisms employed by private political associations to select partisan candidates for the November general elections.

2. Texas primaries are weird primaries – they are weird in the sense that Texas is the only state that imposes the responsibility of conducting the primaries on individual county political parties, which then contract with the county governments to provide the equipment and personnel for the election, and then are reimbursed after the election with state-appropriated funding for the cost of the primary. In every other state that has primary elections, the county, parish, or township government conducts the primary election, without any transfer of funds from the state to the political parties.

3. The timing and organizational schedules of Texas primaries are now labyrinthine and bizarre – the competing political and financial interests of county political parties, candidates for state office, county governments, the State, military and overseas voters, the federal government, candidates for federal office, private contractors, national political parties, independent candidates, and others (potentially including such surprising interests as advertising agencies, school principals, city bond counsels, tourism boards and people scheduling college graduation ceremonies) have collided in ways that could euphemistically be called “interesting.” I mean, just look at this mess. Texas political parties conducted the primary elections on March 4th, and then have the primary run-off resulting from those elections on May 27th. That’s nearly three months of political agony simply to find out who the party faithful want as their candidates for the November election.

Why do primary elections have run-offs? Why aren’t they simply winner-take-all elections like the November election?

The facile answer is that primary elections have run-offs because primary elections are determined by majority vote – but that just prompts the question as to why primary elections are determined by majority (as opposed to plurality) voting.

The more complicated answer is that majority voting cements intra-party support for the party candidate that is ultimately nominated, and that both majority and plurality voting systems are aspects of majoritarian democracy, which is inherently conservative (in the classical sense, not in the political sense), hostile to parliamentary coalition-building, ideologically stable, and slow to change. Majoritarian systems deny power to marginal groups, and discourage meaningful dissent.

That may sound negative, but it isn’t. It isn’t positive either, it’s just what the plurality of us want out of voting and government. We (I mean the plurality of us) want to avoid all the messy bickering and compromise associated with proportionate voting. We want things to stay the same for a long time, and then change quickly and drastically in short, punctuated bursts of complete political turmoil. That’s not good or bad, that’s just what we like. Other cultures prefer fluid, perpetually shifting ideological change, where the the turmoil is constant but muted, and not prone to wrenching, sudden overthrows.

Majoritarian voting isn’t the only game in town, and there are advocates for other forms of voting, and for other ways to choose party candidates. Don’t fall into the habit of believing that things like election methods and calendars are in any sense ideologically neutral.

 

 

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