The History of Political Parties, and How Primaries Work

A chance to choose the fall election candidates

By Art Urie, for the Beacon

We take political parties for granted most of the time. It is only when someone asks why two parties dominate political life in our country, or when the ballot clerk at a primary election asks us which ballot we want, that we even think about our relationship with a political party. There is nothing particularly sacred about political parties; they are not mentioned in the United States Constitution, nor are they a necessity for the functioning of a democratic republic.

As I understand the history, political parties developed as people realized that consistently working with people who agreed with them about some basic concerns could help achieve results. From the beginning, members of political parties or movements did not agree about everything; they worked together because they agreed about some basic concerns and directions.

For example, people who were eager for the development of rail service might join one party, while those who were concerned that railroad companies were exercising too much power over other areas of life joined another party.

It is popular to say that I vote for “the person, not the party.” My suspicion is that we are kidding ourselves when we say that. What we are really saying is that we vote for the person we like, as long as she agrees that the railroads need encouragement; or we vote for the person we like, as long as he agrees that the railroad companies need to be controlled.

If you think I am railroading this explanation, I am – but it is such a nice (non-contemporary) analogy.

Early in the process, parties would meet to name the candidate(s) they would support together. Over time, those meetings came to be called conventions and developed the reputation of having lots of wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms.

Gradually, the view was adopted that it made sense for more people to be involved in the decision of which candidates to support, and the primary was born; “primary” because it was the first election, the election that was held before the main election.

As I understand it, in some states the parties ran their own special elections. In most states, the parties in effect asked the state to run the elections for them.

The way this primaries are run varies by state and has changed over the years and will probably continue to change. In some states, the people able to vote in the first election are only the people who are members of the party whose candidates are being chosen. In other states, the first election is completely open, with anyone being able to help choose the candidates of any party.

Characteristically, New Hampshire has chosen a moderate path between the two. In New Hampshire, if you are registered as a member of a party, you can help choose the candidates for that party. If you are registered as a member of a particular party, you cannot help choose the candidates for another party.

If you are registered as Undeclared – not a member of any existing party – you may vote in either party’s first election. One part of this arrangement that is sometimes forgotten is that in voting in one party’s election, you are, at least for a few minutes, considered to be a member of that party. You will continue to be registered as a member of that party until you fill out a form re-registering as an Undeclared voter.

In order to prevent people who think railroads need to be controlled from voting in the primary of the party who thinks the railroads need to be encouraged and voting for a candidate that will be easy to defeat, the voting roles are frozen three months before the primary, so no changes in party identification can be made until after the primary. You cannot wait until you see the list of candidates for each party before deciding which party primary you want to vote in.

Primaries, the first elections, are important. It is your chance to help choose the candidates who support what you think is important.