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Lessons from 'primary' school
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Forsyth County News
This article is adapted from an earlier one that I wrote a bit more than ten years ago. The specifics have changed, but the principles remain unaltered. It kind of falls under the category, “When will we ever learn?”

“One man, one vote!” and “The will of the majority.” These are expressions that most of us have heard for all of our lives. They are basic tenets of the democratic system. They make sense -- at least in principle. But what happens in practice may be quite different.

On Sept. 18, the State of Hawaii finished the last of a series in what seems to have become a traditional American non-tradition. It was the last state to hold its initial primary election, to select party candidates for November’s national elections.

A Rasmussen report on Sept. 1 identified 35 percent of U.S. voters as Democrats and 33.8 percent as Republicans. On Sept. 7, American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate released a study on all of the primaries conducted up through Sept. 1. Their data covering 32 states showed that 10.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Republican primaries while 8.3 percent participated in Democratic primaries. The data did not include the primaries held in September, of which the biggest are in New York and Massachusetts; however, there is no reason to suspect that the percentages will change significantly when the numbers for the other states are factored in.  

A rough estimate drawn from these numbers would indicate that less than one-third of eligible Republicans will have voted in the Republican primaries. The comparable figure for Democrats will be under 25 percent.

These numbers should not come as a big surprise to anyone. In the minds of many, elections are somewhat akin to athletic competitions. Primary elections normally get as much attention as the warm-ups -- not much. Even in November, non-presidential election years equate to the preliminaries -- a bit more interesting. Presidential election years are the ones that bring people out to participate in “the main event,” the finals.  

But this year something is different, and although the numbers are still anemic, there has been a significant change. It has been brought about largely by dissatisfaction with the political landscape -- the disenchantment with the functioning of Congress, problems with the economy, and a host of other factors. One group seems to have learned a “primary lesson.”

Let’s look at the anatomy of an election. The rules are straight forward. That person wins who receives 1 more than 50 percent of the vote. An extreme and simple example will illustrate the point. Assume that there are two candidates, A & B, for a party’s nomination in a primary. Only three voters turn out for this warm-up event -- the primary. Two cast their ballots for A and one votes for B. Under the rules, A is declared the winner, and three people -- a handful -- will have determined the outcome for everyone who attends the main event, no matter how many turn out turn out to vote then.

What gives this process even greater impact is the fact that many elections are run in “safe” districts, where gerrymandering and other political factors have assured one party dominance. In some of these districts, the party in power is virtually unopposed. In these situations, the winner of the dominant party’s primary is virtually assured a victory and anyone who goes to the polls in November will find the die already cast by those who have voted in the primaries. In one sense, they have been disenfranchised.

So one key to victory in many elections is simple: get out the vote, not necessarily the big vote in November, but the much smaller vote needed in the primaries.

That’s exactly what the Tea Party did in Delaware. An unknown, Christine O’Donnell beat Michael Castle, an entrenched Republican icon, for the Party’s nomination -- by 3,540 votes. Of those registered as Republicans to vote, more than 120,000 did not cast their ballots. The vote was 30,561 to 27,021. At this point, it hardly matters what the 120,000 think. 57,582 voters made the decision for them, and by just 3,540 votes. Even if all 120,000 would have voted for Castle, they never got the chance because the 30,561 votes cast for O’Donnell were, in essence, able to negate up to 147,000 potential November votes for Castle (the 120,000 who didn’t vote plus the 27,000 who did). So much for “one man one vote.” A vote in the primary was able to potentially offset almost five votes for the rest of the electorate in November.

My point has nothing to do with the political views of Ms. O’Donnell or Mr. Castle or the political differences between the main-stream Republican Party and the up-surging Tea Party coalition. The latter has learned how to use the system – and has done so with increasing effect in a number of cases.

There are many who seem to be upset by this. There are concerns that, given the more conservative views of many Tea Party supported candidates, these efforts are undermining Republican efforts to unseat the Democrats in Congress. That may or may not be the case. But the real answer is simple. Complaints are no substitute for going to the polls and voting -- and particularly in the primaries.

The primaries are part of an American tradition. But, unfortunately, so is the act of ignoring them. I feel like a broken record (a somewhat outdated expression at this point of time), constantly repeating the mantra that nothing will change until we all get involved. Too often, a significant number of elections are decided well before November.

“One man, one vote” only applies when people exercise that privilege. The “will of the majority” cannot be expressed if the majority chooses not to do so. Interestingly, the United States, the greatest and most successful democracy the world has ever known, lags far behind all of the other free-world industrial nations with respect to the record of people exercising their right to participate in decision-making through elections. We need to change this pattern.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at