Despite insisting that they were saving taxpayers $1.2 million, Republican Party officials got a lot of pushback for canceling next year’s S.C. presidential primary. Critics on the right say they were cheating voters out of the right to cast a ballot, even though we all know that President Trump would win, and critics on the left charge that they were protecting the president from possible embarrassment.
Trump's popularity among South Carolina Republicans meant he was always likely to be the state's pick for GOP nominee, but the decision to scrap the primary will prevent any of his challengers from even competing against him here.
It’s true the party saved taxpayers $1.2 million by not holding a primary on a different day than the S.C. Democratic presidential primary. But the added cost to hold the primary on the same day as the Democratic primary would be minuscule — possibly low enough to be covered by candidate filing fees. (The Election Commission doesn’t have an estimate because this option isn’t being considered.) So the cost-savings argument doesn’t wash.
But let’s not get bogged down over whether the party was right to call off the primary. The fact is that members of a political party’s executive committee owe no obligation to the public. (Raise your hand if you can name even one member of either party’s executive committee.) Instead of criticizing these anonymous party hacks, we should be criticizing the Legislature for allowing them to call the shots for our elections.
It’s the Legislature that allowed the political parties to increase the cost of the primaries by holding them on separate dates. It’s the Legislature that allowed the political parties to cancel their presidential primaries. It’s the Legislature that has an obligation to look out for all South Carolinians, not just the minority of voters who are devoted to a particular political party. And it’s the Legislature that needs to strip away political parties’ control over presidential primaries.
It’s true that presidential primaries are different than primaries for state, local and congressional offices. Presidential primaries, at least S.C. presidential primaries, aren’t real primaries. Presidential nominees are selected by the national party conventions. And S.C. delegates to the Republican and Democratic national conventions can ignore the results of the presidential primaries and cast their convention ballots for whomever they prefer.
In fact, the parties themselves used to hold the primaries and cover the costs. But they persuaded the Legislature to take over primarieser to preserve the integrity of the voting process — and by extension to guard our state’s credibility when all eyes are on us. The Legislature was right to do that. In a free society, few things are more important than public ownership and confidence in our elections and our government. When primaries are run on the cheap, or unprofessionally, or when independents and Democrats feel uncomfortable participating in an election because it’s run by Republicans — or independents and Republicans feel uncomfortable participating in an election because it’s run by Democrats — that undermines the sense of ownership we must have in our representative democracy.
What the Legislature did wrong was giving parties so much control. The rules for presidential parties should be the same as rules for primaries for state, local and congressional offices (which the parties used to run, before they persuaded the Legislature to take over those too; but that’s a much longer and more complicated story): The state, not the parties, should set the date, and it should be one date for both primaries. A primary should be held whenever more than one candidate qualifies for the ballot. And the results should be binding on the delegates to the national conventions. Because that’s how Americans expect, and deserve, their elections to be run.