The Direct Primary: A Study From Life


‘THE remedy for the evils of democracy is more democracy.’

Following this formula, which has been offered as a specific for all the ills that may afflict a democratic form of government, the direct primary is taking the place of the state and city convention. The evils of the convention are many, but can we be sure that the direct primary is the ‘more democracy’ which is to be their cure?

Democracy implies a secret and independent ballot. The rules governing the direct primary require the voter to register, where all may see, the name of the party with which he voted at the last election or the one he intends to vote with at the next. If, in his desire to vote for the best candidate irrespective of party, he registers as a nonpartisan, he is quite likely to find that no party under that name has prepared a primary ballot and he loses his vote. To avoid this disfranchisement he may register as a Republican or Democrat and vote in the party primary for the candidates whom he deems the most worthy among the few offered for his choice and in whose selection he was not consulted. It may happen, and frequently does happen to the independent, that the candidates whom he believes the least worthy become the choice of the party with which he has voted, in which case he finds himself committed by what is called party loyalty to the support of men he does not trust and whose election he believes would be a public disaster.

In addition to this moral obligation imposed by party loyalty, the would-be independent voter in my own state is under a legal obligation to vote at the general election for more than half of the ticket nominated by the majority, however well founded may be his objections to more than half. The natural result of this constraint of choice is that the citizen who believes in his inherent right to vote for the best man he knows does not take part in the primary, and the selection of the ticket is left to the blindly partisan, who accept any candidate put forth by the party leaders and who can be depended upon to support any ticket labeled regular.

A system of nomination that thus violates the principle for which the Anglo-Saxon has so long and so valiantly contended — the secrecy and independence of the ballot — can hardly be recommended as the ‘more democracy’ which is to be the remedy for our electoral ills. New abuses have taken the place of those the primary was intended to abolish, and except in unusual cases the machine control of nominations is as absolute as ever. The cost of elections has been doubled, and in states and cities where one party is strongly in the majority the primary gives the real decision and the general election becomes a perfunctory, expensive, and unnecessary function.

In population and industrial achievement, Pennsylvania stands second among the states, and Philadelphia, by reason of her historical associations and industrial activities, is in the front rank of American cities; it seems fair, therefore, to take a Philadelphia primary conducted under Pennsylvania laws as typical of the ‘ more democracy ‘ obtained by that method of nomination.

The primary of 1923 was undoubtedly the most important election ever held in Philadelphia. Under the provisions of the new charter every elective officer of every kind and degree had to be nominated, and to the Republican nominees — for in Philadelphia a Republican nomination is equivalent to an election — was to be entrusted the expenditure of a loan of $70,000,000 for public improvements.

In my own division in the heart of the city, where the organization is firmly entrenched, it is always very difficult to get enough independent watchers. Four are needed, in order that two may be in the polling-place together and be witness one for the other should any challenge result in legal proceedings. A thorough canvass of the division revealed that not one man could be persuaded to act as independent watcher, and only two women, myself and one other, were willing to accept the responsibilities involved. Each of us had had a varied experience as watcher in two previous elections, but unfortunately we were compelled to be on duty alternately, thus leaving the independent candidates represented by only one watcher.

When I reported for duty on election morning, my alternate, who had been at the polls since the opening hour, said, ‘Every voter who asks for assistance gets it, and no affidavits have been required. What do you think we ought to do?’

A Voters’ Assistance Clause in the election laws of Pennsylvania allows every voter who claims a disability to ask for aid in marking his ballot. The disability may be physical or mental. The voter may plead that he is blind, or has not the use of his arms or hands, or he may plead that he cannot read or write, or simply that he cannot understand the ballot. It is said that when the Voters’ Assistance Clause was first debated in the legislature one member proposed that drunkenness be added to the list of disabilities, and since I myself have seen feeble-minded men deposit, with the support of the law, ballots which they obviously knew nothing about, the plea to make drunkenness a legal disability seems almost defensible.

At a general election, every voter demanding assistance is made the judge of his own disability and may not be challenged. On his simple statement that he needs aid, a benevolent watcher goes into the booth with him and renders the assistance asked for. The primary law, however, which was enacted when the independents happened to be in control of the legislature, provides that no voter may receive assistance without making an affidavit that his disability is as claimed. When my alternate said, therefore, that assistance was being given and no affidavits required, it was evident that the election officers were permitting a wholesale violation of the primary law. We made a joint protest to the judge, and the division leader took it upon himself to explain the situation. I might say incidentally that all the election officers, including the judge, were Negroes, and that the division leader was Irish.

This leader told us that a judge of the Superior Court had handed down a decision to the effect that whenever a loan is to be voted upon at a primary the rules of the general election must apply and assistance be allowed without challenge. My alternate and myself doubted whether the decision of any one judge could thus suddenly and without appeal nullify an act of legislature. She remained on duty and I left the polls to consult the Committee of Seventy, a body of public-spirited citizens who have made it their business to watch for infractions of the election laws and prosecute conspicuous offenders. The secretary of the Committee told me that, from what he had been able to learn, word had gone out at midnight to all organization leaders that assistance without affidavit would be legal under a judicial decision, but that he himself had not as yet found any record of any such decision. Assistance was being given freely in all polling-places, he said, and the Committee was powerless to stop such general violation of the law. The only thing we could do in our division was to keep a list of names and addresses of those who were assisted and of the assistants. ‘You may say to your election officers,’ he added, ‘that the Committee of Seventy will prosecute everyone who gives illegal assistance and every election officer who permits it, and the penalty for a judge of election who permits illegal assistance is a fine of $1000 or a year’s imprisonment or both.’

I returned to the polls and reported to the election officers what I had heard from the Committee of Seventy. They looked troubled and conferred with the division leader and with a magistrate who was hastily summoned. The outcome of the conference was that assistance was continued. No challenges were allowed. The election became a merry farce with my alternate and myself as spectators. Out of 286 voters, 126 received assistance, and the assistants became so careless that in one instance one of them forgot to drop the curtain before the booth and I saw him mark the ballot himself, the nominal voter merely standing by, an apparently uninterested looker-on at something that did not concern him.


The next morning’s papers confirmed the report of the secretary of the Committee of Seventy that the primaryelection law had been disregarded all over the city, that assistance to voters had been general, and that in many divisions there had been illegalities of various other kinds. The extreme length of the ballot had made the official count an all-night task. Many election officers had revolted and, after counting the names on several ballots, had made ‘estimates’ of the rest. The North American made public the process of ‘estimating’ as set forth in an affidavit sworn to by an election officer who at the last minute had substituted for a majority inspector who was ill. According to this sworn statement, the Republican ballots were taken to the rear of the room by one of the officers, who made calculations on a sample ballot and then called off the figures for the mayoralty and councilmanic candidates, these figures being then entered on the tally sheets which had been signed in blank earlier in the day. The suggestion of another officer that the whole count be ‘simplified’ was then adopted, and, after a few minutes’ figuring, the vote totals for all the candidates were announced and entered on the tally sheets.

‘At no time during this period,’ says the affidavit, ‘did any officer make a count of the Republican ballots or examine them in any way.’

Four months later, on the strength of this affidavit, these election officers and two committeemen were indicted and brought to trial on the charge of a conspiracy to make false returns. They were promptly acquitted.

‘This case,’ says the Philadelphia Record, ‘ if it shall stand as a precedent, will in our opinion set back the cause of a pure ballot in Philadelphia about twenty-five years. . . . Instead of counting the votes on the Republican ballots, the election board turned them over to a committeeman. He did not count them, he “estimated” them. He called off his “estimates” to the election officers, who entered them on the tally sheets as an actual record of votes cast. The accuracy of the “estimates” may be judged from the fact shown in the recount that one candidate who had actually received 131 votes was credited with 19. One of the accused officers testified on the witness stand that he was guilty. The jury disagreed with him and rendered a verdict clearing all of the seven defendants. The judge, in his charge to the jury, declared that “it is not an indication of fraudulent intent by election officers if they let some ready computer count the votes for them. It indicates a desire to get home after twelve hours’ work and not a desire to make a false return.” And after acquittal he is quoted as having administered this solemn rebuke to the men who had been instrumental in defeating the will of the voters: “Now you’d better be more careful how you count votes. All these short cuts get you into trouble.”’

These ‘short cuts’ and the ‘simplified’ counts resulted in the nomination of the entire organization ticket. The choice of the organization candidate for mayor was a foregone conclusion. He was a popular man and undoubtedly received a large majority of the votes cast, but the independents had reason to expect the nomination of at least a third of their candidates for council. In one councilmanic district the independent candidate, who had previously shown himself a good fighter against heavy odds, demanded and obtained a recount of the ballots. The actual count reversed the ‘ simplified ‘ count and, instead of being defeated, he found himself nominated by a substantial majority. The independents thought and still think that an actual count would have shown a similar result in all the wards where they are strong, but no other candidate cared to go to the trouble and expense of insisting on a recount.

The investigation conducted by the Committee of Seventy showed later that the judicial decision quoted by the organization as authorizing assistance whenever a loan is submitted to the people was not a judicial decision but merely an opinion given by the judge in question before he was called to the bench and while he was acting as counsel to the county commissioners. Moreover, his opinion was given in 1909, while the act of legislature defining and clarifying the laws governing the primary was not passed until 1913. Manifestly, a legal opinion given to the county commissioners in 1909, however valuable at that time, would have to yield to an act of legislature in 1913.

When I went to serve as watcher at the general election, I said to the election officers, ‘Your faction committed at the primary the kind of blunder that has been described as worse than a crime. This division is always overwhelmingly for the organization, and the illegal assistance you permitted could not be called politically necessary. The Committee of Seventy is collecting evidence of illegal assistance in all the election divisions, and when this division is reached what are you going to do?’

‘My word is as good as yours, I suppose,’ answered one of the officers, meaning apparently that he would deny what I as a watcher would affirm. ‘Quite as good,’ I assented, ‘but I have a list of names and addresses written down at the moment of assistance and it should be good evidence in court.’

‘Don’t you believe that the courts are political?’ was his next question.

‘If you mean that the decisions of the courts are influenced by party politics,’ I answered, ‘I can only say that, whether justified or unjustified, that is the current belief.’

‘And don’t you believe that juries can be fixed?’ he asked.

Again I had to answer, ‘ Whether justified or not, that is the current belief.’

‘Well?’ he said. ‘Well?’ — and settled himself back in his chair as if there were nothing more to be said.

In point of fact, there was nothing more to be said, and the decision of the court that ‘estimating’ votes instead of counting them is not an offense against the election laws left little to be done. The control of the next primary became a relatively easy matter.

The outcome of the primaries of 1923 and 1924 was known in each case before election day, but the control was effected by different methods. In 1923 the organization was still demoralized by the death of a powerful leader and the election of Governor Pinchot. It became necessary from a partisan standpoint that a majority of the nominees should be trusted organizationmen, and to attain this end electoral illegalities had to be permitted. Within the six months before the primary of 1924 the organization had lubricated and repaired the party machine, the division leaders were working together in peace and harmony, and the control of the primary was so assured that flagrant violations of the law were not necessary.

It is true that, owing to some political manipulation somewhere, independent watchers in several divisions, including my own, found themselves unable to get certificates, but a little irregularity of that kind is scarcely worth public mention. It is true, also, that marked ballots were furnished abundantly in all the polling-places, but apparently such first aid to the voter is no longer an indictable offense. Law-abiding citizens in fifty divisions asked the aid of the Committee of Seventy in having the ballot boxes opened and recounts made, but such requests are nothing unusual. A defeated candidate assured me that she had positive proof that in her division a voter of some influence was paid ten dollars to scratch Pinchot’s name, but when a man is paid to act against his convictions the price is necessarily high.

Newspaper witticisms reflect the popular opinion of the last primary: —

Conscientious citizen to ward leader: ‘Was this an honest election ? ‘

Ward leader: ‘Absolutely honest. We paid spot cash for every vote we bought.’

Inquiring citizen to Chief Boss: ‘Are you satisfied with the way the election went?’

Chief Boss: ‘Perfectly. If I were not going to be satisfied I would not have had it go that way.’


The theory of the primary is better than the theory of the convention, but the fact is that the voters have little if any more freedom of choice under one system than under the other. In both cases a slate is presented. The candidates have been agreed upon by a committee more or less self-appointed. This was markedly the case in the primary of 1924. Voters were permitted to select seven out of ten delegates to the Republican National Convention, but they had nothing to do with the naming of the ten. The rest of the ticket on the Republican ballot offered the voter no choice of candidates. He had either to vote the straight organization ticket or not vote at all.

Under the direct-primary law of Pennsylvania, independent choice would seem to be secured by the proviso that any candidate who can show the signatures of a given number of residents of his district must be given a place on the ticket. Few candidates, however, have cared to incur the displeasure of the party leaders by rebelling against the slate, and it is a task requiring time and energy to get the necessary signatures, the majority of the voters preferring to take the line of least resistance by voting for the slated candidates or not voting at all.

The average citizen is perplexed and harassed by the number of elections and the length of the ballot. With the primary, we now have two elections a year, and the primary is the more important since, in a state so overwhelmingly of one party as Pennsylvania, a Republican nomination is almost equivalent to an election. The general election has become merely a ratification of the Republican primary, but still requires campaign headquarters, public meetings, party assessments, and all the ‘whooping it up’ which tradition has imposed. The ballot is many times too long. In the primary of 1923 we citizens were asked to choose twelve judges among twice as many candidates of whom we knew little or nothing. We were bidden to select a coroner, a sheriff, a recorder of deeds, and a register of wills, although their duties are largely clerical and every one of the officers could be supplied more easily and satisfactorily from the eligible lists of the civil-service commission. We were expected to signify our choice of a list of candidates for division registrars, inspectors, and judges of election, and a variety of other petty officials who would do better work if they were certified by the civil-service examiner and made responsible to the registration commission. In addition to the effort to find a familiar name among all these candidates, we had to approve or disapprove of a loan, though not one voter in a hundred had time or patience to read the complicated sentence of one thousand words in which it was submitted, and not one in fifty could understand it when read. Small wonder that the average citizen remained at home rather than face the arduous task set him by the party leaders.

During every campaign the charge is made anew that the intelligent citizens forget or refuse to vote, thus leaving the ignorant and boss-ridden to constitute a majority. My experience as a watcher in four elections has convinced me that the intelligent and unintelligent go to the polls and remain at home in the same proportion, and if the unintelligent prevail it is because there are more of them. In my division, for example, there were in 1923 the names of 819 voters on the assessor’s list. I should hesitate to vouch for the accuracy of the list, but on the face of it the division was given 819 possible voters. About 150 of these reflected the intelligent vote — that is, the vote that could be depended upon to repudiate unfit candidates however strong the political influence behind them. Only 395 of the possible 819 voters availed themselves of their right to register for the primary, and only 286 in 1923 and 222 in 1924 took the trouble to go to the polls. I made especial note of the fact that the actual independent vote bore about the same ratio to the possible independent vote as the actual organization vote to the possible vote of that faction.

My alternate happened to say to one of the election officers, after the polls had closed, that the independents hoped to see the Voters’ Assistance Clause repealed during Governor Pinchot’s administration. ‘I hope they will see nothing of the kind,’ he said. ‘It is hard enough now to get our voters out, and if they cannot be sure of assistance they will not come out at all.’

My own observation is in accord with that of the election officer. I believe that the very ignorant do not care to vote and that they go to the polls only under pressure from the division leader or in expectation of financial reward. During one primary in which I was trying to keep track of assisted voters, an organization watcher suddenly exclaimed, ‘No one has voted from Mulberry Street!’ ‘No,’ said another, ‘and I ‘ll tell you why. A lady on Mulberry Street was put in jail last month and the division leader did n’t get her out, so no one’s voting on Mulberry Street.’

An ambassador with plenipotentiary powers was at once dispatched to Mulberry Street, and soon returned bringing several reluctant Negro women who demanded and received assistance. As one of them left the room she was overheard to say to her companion, ‘I did n’t want to vote, but I had to. They told me they’d raise my rent if I did n’t.’

My division, which is in the old part of the city, crowded with tenements and with a tenement population supposed to be entirely under party control, was able to produce only one third of the possible vote, and this in face of the fact that the organization watchers were under orders to bring out at least 350 voters. One of the election officers told us that to stimulate vote-getting the watchers were paid a dollar apiece for every voter over the required 350. ‘What happens,’ we asked, ‘when, as to-day, the total vote is only 222?’ The man shrugged his shoulders. ‘That is just what I want to know,’ he said.

The city as a whole showed in 1923 approximately 400,000 voters out of a possible 819,218, and in the 1924 primary the difference between the actual and possible vote was still greater. I used to join in condemning the stay-at-homes, but since I have seen with my own eyes with what ease the vote is controlled I find myself yielding to a sympathy with their point of view. Candidates are slated, voters are assisted, votes are ‘estimated,’ the count is ‘simplified,’ and the primary is no more representative of the people at large than is the convention.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger said editorially the morning after the last primary that this method of nomination ‘presents a practical problem for conscientious voters for which no satisfactory answer has been found. . . . An inevitable result (of the primary) is that the choice of candidates is left to the managers of the respective machines and their welldisciplined forces. ... If the primary is an ineffective instrument for eliciting the will of the party, what is there to replace it?’

Shall we be forced to admit that democracy is a failure?

What shall we do about it?