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Opinion Columns

Armstrong: For better politics, let’s separate party and state

Imagine there’s no political party on the ballot. It’s easy if you try. And, unlike John Lennon’s utopia, my proposed reforms are both possible and prudent.

Early in our state’s history people tried letting political parties largely run elections. That was a disaster. Now we try letting government run political parties in important ways. Our politics remain highly divisive and in many ways dysfunctional.

Ari Armstrong

I suggest we try a new approach: Get parties out of the government’s election process, and get government out of parties. In short, separate party and state.

I’m not saying that political parties should not exist or that they should play no role in advocating candidates and policies. I’m saying that parties should operate as private organizations, with no special government powers and no formal standing in election law.

By analogy, the “separation of church and state” does not mean that religious people and religious organizations cannot be involved in politics. It means (in part) that religious groups get no special treatment under the law. My point is that political parties should get no special legal treatment either.

We are so used to the two-party-dominated system that few people have even considered such fundamental reforms. I ask you to think big and at least consider whether my proposals might dramatically improve our political system, as I think they would.

First let’s review the current election system. State government regulates how major and minor parties operate, registers voters by party affiliation (or as “unaffiliated”), organizes and finances primary elections that (often) determine the parties’ candidates for a general election, lets unaffiliated voters participate in party primaries (since 2016) and lists candidates on the ballot by party affiliation.

Political parties, although nominally private organizations, are in effect quasi-governmental entities, tightly controlled by government and granted explicit privileges by government.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Here, in outline, is how I think the election system should operate:

  • State government registers voters only to guarantee their eligibility to vote and does not track party affiliation. Just as the state has no proper business tracking our religious and social affiliations, so it has no proper business tracking our political affiliations. (Can you imagine if government tagged us as “Catholic,” “Atheist,” “NRA Member,” “ACLU Member,” and the like?)
  • Political parties operate in all respects as private organizations. They determine rules of membership and which candidates and policies to endorse. In essence parties become social groups, operating by the same rules that apply to every other organization.
  • Parties are responsible for determining how they endorse candidates. If they want to hold caucuses and conventions, fine. If they want to run primaries, let them organize and pay for them. It’s not the taxpayers’ responsibility. If parties want to restrict participation to official party members, that is their business and their right. If they want to let everyone in the state vote in their primaries, fine.
  • Government runs only general elections (and potentially “special” elections), not party primaries. It sets the same ballot access rules for everyone, regardless of affiliations. We could just say that the current petition requirements for unaffiliated candidates apply to everyone. Government simply does not discriminate on the basis of party affiliation, in any manner. It is entirely silent on the matter of affiliation.
  • Government, then, does not list the party affiliation of candidates on the ballot. Voters cannot just lazily vote by party listing. However, parties (and other groups) are free to distribute voter guides promoting their favored candidates.
  • If parties wish to establish rules saying that two party members may not appear on the same general election ballot for the same office, let them establish and enforce such rules. For example, a party could say that party members who run for office in violation of party rules are kicked out of the party. But nothing a party does directly affects how the Secretary of State certifies candidates.
  • The only role for government in this scenario is to protect intellectual property and to mediate legal disputes. So, for example, just as I could not run for office as the “Colorado Sun Candidate” without the Sun’s permission (which it would never give, obviously), so I could not run as the “Republican Party” candidate without that party’s sanction.

What, you say? These reforms would break the power duopoly of the major parties? I certainly hope so. That is largely the point.

What I think would happen under these reforms — especially if passed along with approval voting — is that minor parties would grow in prominence, new parties would spring up, and candidates would be more willing to run as independents. We would replace static two-party dominance with a vibrant, dynamic political system more open to new ideas and to independent-minded candidates.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I don’t have to be the only one (again with apologies to Lennon). Maybe you’ll join me in thinking seriously about ways to improve our elections. Before reforms can be implemented, they must first be conceived.

Ari Armstrong (@ariarmstrong) publishes the Colorado Freedom Report and is the author of Reclaiming Liberalism.