Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The political flap of the week has gurgled up from the Arlington Civic Federation thanks to arch-Republican John Antonelli. Mr. Antonelli has proposed that the Civic Federation consider telling the Arlington Democratic Party to broaden greatly citizen participation in its endorsement/nomination process by dropping the requirement that voters sign a pledge that they are Democrats and will support the Democrats’ endorsee/nominee in the general election.

This sounds good on the surface, particularly since the party’s endorsement or nomination has been tantamount to election in Arlington for several years. But it reflects a profound ignorance of the nominating process during virtually this country’s entire existence.

To over-simplify, the members of a political party – Democratic, Republican, Green, Whig, Tory, Bull Moose, you name it – have met in various types of meetings to select their candidates for public office from president to local school board members almost since the beginning of our republic. Back in the good old days, these were often the fabled smoke-filled rooms of party leaders. Nowadays, the process has been broadened to include large primaries, state and national conventions, to local caucuses in people’s living rooms.

What has not changed is that the process has always been limited to members of a specific political party. The rub is that the concept of exactly what constitutes a “member” of a party is somewhat amorphous. Are they the elected precinct leaders that form the local committee? Are they the district, state, or national convention delegates selected for the purpose of nominating candidates? Or are they something else?

The answer is “yes” to all of these questions. But with the broadening of the nomination process, party membership for the purposes of caucuses and primaries has come to mean those citizens of a particular jurisdiction who have registered to vote as members of a specific party.

That is all well and good, but the rub comes in states such as Virginia where voters do not register by party. How can we assure that those who vote in caucuses or primaries are in fact bona fide party “members” and not interlopers from another party bent on torqueing the process toward their party’s ultimate candidate? In a primary process where all parties are participating, the voters can vote in only one party primary, thus declaring themselves by the simple act of signing up to vote in one or another party’s election.

When the parties hold these processes separately, there is only one choice – if we still desire to exclude those from other parties whose only goal is to screw things up. That is to require all who show up at the polls to sign a statement that they are a member of that party and will vote for the nominee/endorsee in the ensuing general election.

Of course all of this could be eliminated in Virginia if the state would just have voters register by party, as it should. But in lieu of this, there must be some way to identify those voting in internal party processes as members of that party, even if it is only for the split second they are signing the pledge.

Either that, or endorse scrapping the party system all together, as suggested by Mr. Antonelli. But that subject deserves its own column.