The national conventions of the two major political parties are now in the rearview mirror, as are the primary elections in Kansas and Missouri. We know the candidates for president and for lesser offices in both states.
Before those events fade into history, though, let’s pause to consider how strange it is that, in election years, taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing the decisions of the two major political parties.
Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. In fact, the founders deeply feared parties, which they called factions. They worried that political parties would lead to conflict and a lack of compromise, leading to ineffective government.
Alas, their warnings were ignored. Americans aligned themselves into two broad political organizations just a few years after the Constitution was ratified, and, with a few changes along the way, we’ve been entrenched in a two-party system ever since.
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To be clear, there are advantages to a two-party approach. Broadly speaking, both major American parties have philosophies that are widely understood — if I tell you a candidate is a Democrat, you instantly have a pretty good idea what he or she stands for. Same with Republicans.
Such easy classification makes it simpler for voters to make choices in general elections. In fact, party identification is the single greatest predictor of election outcomes.
But it also obscures an important fact: The parties aren’t public entities. They’re private institutions.
When Missouri and Kansas voters go to the polls this November, they’ll elect senators and representatives and other public officials. They weren’t doing that Tuesday. They were helping private political parties choose their nominees — a very different endeavor.
And every taxpayer subsidized those private decisions.
Sometimes it’s hard to see how unfair this is, so try this:
Let’s say union members pick a new president, or a company’s stockholders elect a board of directors. Those common elections are paid for by the members and the stockholders. Asking taxpayers to pay would be absurd. Unions and corporations are private entities.
So are the Republican and Democratic parties. Yet federal taxpayers paid at least $100 million for the two nominating conventions and untold millions more for primaries like Tuesday’s.
Party officials know what’s actually going on here. Last March 15, all Missouri taxpayers paid for a presidential primary that did nothing more than allocate party convention delegates. Kansas accomplished exactly the same task by holding caucuses — which the parties paid for, not the taxpayers.
If parties can pay for caucuses, why shouldn’t they pay for their primaries, too?
There are times, of course, when taxpayers should pay for primaries. Kansas City’s mayoral primary is nonpartisan — the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, proceed to the general election. The system eliminates minor candidates and ensures the general election winner gets close to a majority of votes, not a plurality. Voters are making a real choice.
In almost all states, though, the public pays for private party decisions, a fact that would make the Founders cringe.
I’m often asked if I’m disappointed that I can’t vote in the August primaries. I always say no. The primaries aren’t for regular voters. They’re for members of political parties to pick their nominees, and I don’t belong to either party.
I just get stuck with the bill, like everyone else.