This month Americans will complete an important part of the process of selecting the candidates for which they will vote in November for the office of President of the United States.
The two major political parties in America – the Democratic Party and the Republican Party will hold the last of the statewide political primary elections or caucuses in which voters in those states choose delegates to the national conventions of those parties. The delegates in turn, will choose their party’s candidate for President.
The framers of the Constitution of the United States disliked and distrusted political parties. In a famous treatise on government James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution and later President of the United States, warned that “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties.” The Constitution makes no mention of parties but instead provides for the President to be chosen by electors from each state, constituting what is called the Electoral College.
In the first two presidential elections, George Washington was nominated and elected by the Electoral College. But by 1796, political parties had emerged and party caucuses within the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures selected the candidates for which Electoral College would vote.
The party caucus system gave way in 1832 to the national party convention, usually made up delegates selected by the party conventions in the various states. The party convention system was dominated by party leaders and political bosses – a process lacking in transparency and often taking little account of the wishes of the voters.
In 1901 Florida became the first state to hold a presidential primary to select delegates to a national convention. In the decades that followed more and more states moved toward a primary election system which diminished the role of party leaders and empowered to voters to choose the candidates. By 1992, Democrats had primaries in 40 states and Republicans in 39.
Today, primaries are conducted by State and local governments. Caucuses are conducted by party officials. Some states have primaries, others have caucuses or a combination of both.
The primary system, like democracy itself, has its flaws and is faced with many challenges. But in the U.S., it is, in the main, ordinary voters, not party leaders or government officials, who choose the candidates for America’s highest office.