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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The joys of primaries and tea parties

Our local primaries are now over. For the first time since I turned 18, I knew every candidate on my ballot, including all the judges. My libertarian candidate beat the nativist candidate for the Republican nomination for the local U.S. House seat. In fact, no candidate for whom I voted lost. (I won't say they all won because some face runoffs.) Outside the nativist/libertarian battle, my voting choices were essentially forced. One candidate for the state legislature dropped out of the race too late for his name to be removed from the ballot. One judicial candidate had essentially no legal experience. The legislative candidate dropout came in a close second to the active candidate. The judicial candidate with little knowledge of the law forced the conservative incumbent judge into a runoff. What scandal caused such unusual vote outcomes? Sex? Drugs? No, the scandal of severe voter ignorance.

I have always felt that term limits are a bad idea. Voters should simply exercise their right to replace their representatives with ones who will serve them better. I have always been dismayed that this does not work in practice. Strong ideological considerations may require you to regularly vote for your party, but they do not require you to return the same tired political hack to Washington year after year. Primaries give the voters regular opportunities to improve their party's representatives. Why don't the voters exercise this right?

After my experience this year, it has become clear to me that I (and millions like me) am a major part of the problem. I never miss a general election, but often skip nonpresidential primaries because I don't know any of the candidates. I simply vote the party slate in November. This year, however, I met every candidate, questioned most, attended several debates, and read candidate websites. I passed on what I learned to family, to friends, and to those very few of my colleagues who are not of the far left. The time required to become an informed citizen was only a few hours a month to attend political meetings and read web sites. Now that I have seen how easy it is to stay informed, I plan never to return to my prior inattentive state.

The press tries hard to focus the story of the tea party movement on voter anger or extreme ideology. More important for the health of our democracy is the story of engagement. Tea partiers are actively engaged in the political process and informed about their candidates. The same commentators who have long called for term limits miss the import of the current anti-incumbent wave. It should be the natural healthy state of an informed electorate to regularly retire its representatives. The tea party movement and the anti-incumbent wave is a sign of improving health of our political society. I hope the main outcome of the tea party movement will be that henceforth more people attend to politics before and during the primaries and that our candidates each November are determined, not simply by ballot placement or name recognition, but by their stands on the issues.

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