Column: How to end Catch-22 voting

By John Bambenek

Is anyone truly happy with their parties’ candidate for governor this year? Both Rod Blagojevich and Judy Baar Topinka have approval ratings that rival the president’s for the gutter. How these unpopular candidates got on the ballot deserves a good look. What’s more disturbing is that the only difference between the candidates is the letter after their name. They are almost identical when it comes to policy and they are both just about as transparently corrupt.

One of the biggest reasons that low quality candidates end up on the ballot is because of the low turnout for primaries. Primary elections require voters to pick what party they belong to, then vote for which candidate should represent their party during the November elections. The problem is that most voters don’t consider themselves as belonging to a political party.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that once you declare which party you are voting for, that fact becomes a public record. Some people do not vote in primaries for fear of public reprisal for picking up a ballot for an unpopular party. Others don’t want to be harassed by that party for donations. The principle of private voting is violated by the primary system.

The result is that only the party-faithful vote in large enough numbers to matter during a primary, which generally means the party ends up anointing the victor before the election even takes place. Most Republicans despise Topinka, but her victory was a forgone conclusion, so they didn’t bother.

The second problem is that there are only two parties to choice from. While third parties can get on the ballot, the system makes it much harder for them to do so. Many Democrats aren’t fond of Blagojevich (or Governor Smith if you prefer) but they feared if they split ranks with him, they’d lose control in 2006. Party over principle.

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While Topinka may be despised, she was viewed as the only “electable” candidate. As a result, the parties held their nose and picked those candidates, and now the voters get to choose between corrupt candidate A or corrupt candidate B.

Some view the solution as having a viable third party. The result, in a state that has brought political corruption to an art form, would likely be having three despised candidates to choose from. Having easy ballot access for third parties and independents is nevertheless a good step.

The solution begins with an open primary where voters can pick from the entire field of candidates regardless of party. This would keep what happens in the ballot box private and alleviate the concerns of those who don’t want to show their political cards. Political party membership had relevancy about 50 years ago. It has no real practical implications anymore.

An open primary would allow candidates to have relatively free access to the ballot and with increased participation that would likely follow, two truly representative candidates would be chosen to compete against each other in November. Voters should never have to face the choice between bad and worse in general elections.