Ed Kilgore writes that Tennessee Democrats shot themselves in the foot with the winner of their low-information, low-profile Senate primary.
[F]acing incumbent Sen. Bob Corker will be some obscure dude named Mark Clayton, who won a plurality of the vote in a large field of unknowns via the inestimable advantage of appearing at the top of the ballot thanks to his alphabetically superior surname. Turns out Clayton is an enthusiast for homophobia along with various classic conservative extremist memes, including the “NAFTA Super-Highway” and “FEMA Concentration Camps For Patriots.” The Tennessee Democratic Party quickly disowned Clayton, but the damage to the state ticket is already done.
I’d say the situation provides some empirical evidence relevant to two issues of how states conduct elections. Tennessee is one of the relatively few southern states without a threshold requirement of the percentage of votes needed to secure a party nomination. Requiring runoffs can have pernicious effects, but on the other hand, it’s a good way to avoid deeply embarrassing accidental nominations, as Texas Democrats showed earlier this week by nominating former state senator Paul Sadler for the Senate instead of perennial candidate (sometimes as a Republican) Grady Yarbrough, whose first place finish in the primary seems to have been primarily a matter of voters confusing him with the late liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough.
As for the alphabetical ballot listing issue, it’s long past time for every state to list non-incumbent candidates randomly. Otherwise Tennessee primary ballots may regularly feature crazy-person candidates with names like Aaron Aardvark, and Democrats may fondly remember the days when they worried Bob Corker’s last opponent, Harold Ford, Jr., was not sufficiently progressive.
We do have runoffs here, and as was the case in 2006 with Barbara Radnofsky versus Gene Kelly, I think that helped the voters figure out who the candidates were and why one was such an obviously better choice than the other. In our case at least, Paul Sadler would have been the nominee anyway under Tennessee’s system, as he finished first among the four candidates in May. One possible reason why Sadler did so much better in the runoff may be the email sent by the TDP highlighting the differences between his record and that of his runoff opponent’s. Some people disliked that action as you can see from the comments on that post, but I’m not one of them. I do think it’s appropriate and increasingly necessary for the party to play at least an informational role in primary elections. I don’t want to see smoke-filled-room shenanigans of the old days, but I do want to see the party – state or county as appropriate – put together and disseminate basic factual data about candidates in its primaries for the benefit of the voters. Stuff like primary voting history, political contributions, previous candidacies, that sort of thing. Sure, that would normally be the province of a candidate’s campaign, but I see this as being as much in the interest of the party whose banner is going to be carried by the winners of these races. This isn’t foolproof, as there are people who change their minds about which party best represents them and we want to be welcoming to them, but on the whole I think it will do a lot of good. If nothing else, if it forces parties to do a better job of maintaining contact information for its members, it will be a win.
As for randomizing ballot order, that’s a longtime hobbyhorse of mine. I do not understand why in this age of electronic voting machines that isn’t standard practice by now. As far as I’m concerned, every election in Texas that requires a majority of the vote to win – primaries, special elections, local and city elections, pretty much everything except the even-year November generals – should always have randomized ballot ordering. No one should be at an advantage or a disadvantage because of the luck of a ballot draw. I can’t even begin to think of an argument against this.