The primary trouble with primary elections

Another September primary election has faded into history, accompanied by another thoroughly predictable prediction by Secretary of State Bill Gardner of a low voter turnout. Mr. Gardner is a thoughtful, articulate man, but we think legendary Hollywood film producer Sam Goldwyn said it best decades ago: “If the people don’t wanna come, nothin’ can stop ‘em.”

There are a number of reasons for this result, not the least of which is the timing of our primary elections. Holding elections barely one week after Labor Day gives voters little time to come out of their summer doldrums and focus on the choice of candidates before them. And though the weather is usually more conducive to going outdoors in early September than it is in early February, the state and congressional primaries generate less interest and less desire to get to the polls than the more glamorous presidential primaries do.

But the candidates and the news media also are part of the problem. Front-running incumbents frequently ignore primary challengers, often declining to respond to their statements, much less meet them in a face-to-face debate. And the news media all too often go along with it. Though they generally give pro forma news coverage of the races, with interviews and candidate profiles, too much of the coverage and virtually all of the analysis and commentary consist of condescending dismissals of candidates whose long-shot status makes them supposedly less than “serious” opponents. And too much of the coverage is about polls and fund-raising and not enough about the candidates and the issues.

The electronic media, especially, should stop giving a free pass to every front-runner who refuses to debate his opponent. The TV stations should work with the candidates and the schedulers in a cooperative manner, but when someone is either artfully dodging or flatly refusing a debate opportunity, the station should make time available and let the candidates who are willing make use of it.

It may be a hackneyed symbol, but the news outlets could do worse than provide voters with a “debate” between a candidate and an empty chair. After all, better an empty chair than an empty suit.

Categories: News