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chapter 60: The Machine - Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 2 
The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 2.
Part of: The American Commonwealth, 2 vols.
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The organization of an American party consists of two distinct, but intimately connected, sets of bodies, the one permanent, the other temporary. The function of the one is to manage party business, of the other to nominate party candidates.1
The first of these is a system of managing committees. In some states every election district has such a committee, whose functions cover the political work of the district. Thus in country places there is a township committee, in cities a ward committee. There is a committee for every city, for every district, and for every county. In other states it is only the larger areas, cities, counties, and congressional or state assembly districts that have committees. There is, of course, a committee for each state, with a general supervision of such political work as has to be done in the state as a whole. There is a national committee for the political business of the party in the Union as a whole, and especially for the presidential contest.2 The whole country is covered by this network of committees, each with a sphere of action corresponding to some constituency or local election area, so that the proper function of a city committee, for instance, is to attend to elections for city offices, of a ward committee to elections for ward offices, of a district committee to elections for district offices. Of course the city committee, while supervising the general conduct of city elections, looks to each ward organization to give special attention to the elections in its own ward; and the state committee will in state elections expect similar help from, and be entitled to issue directions to, all bodies acting for the minor areas—districts, counties, townships, cities, and wards—comprised in the state. The smaller local committees are in fact autonomous for their special local purposes, but subordinate in so far as they serve the larger purposes common to the whole party. The ordinary business of these committees is to raise and apply funds for election purposes and for political agitation generally, to organize meetings when necessary, to prepare lists of voters, to disseminate political tracts and other information, to look after the press, to attend to the admission of immigrants as citizens and their enrolment on th party lists.3 At election times they have also to superintend the canvass, to procure and distribute tickets at the polls (unless this is, under recent legislation, done by a public authority), to allot money for various election services, to see that voters are brought up to the poll; but they are often aided, or virtually superseded, in this work by “campaign committees” specially created for the occasion. Finally, they have to convoke at the proper times those nominating assemblies which form the other parallel but distinct half of the party organization.
These committees are permanent bodies, that is to say, they are always in existence and capable of being called into activity at short notice. They are reappointed annually by the primary (hereinafter described) or convention (as the case may be) for their local area, and of course their composition may be completely changed on a reappointment. In practice it is but little changed, the same men continuing to serve year after year, because they hold the strings in their hands, because they know most and care most about the party business. In particular, the chairman is apt to be practically a permanent official, and (if the committee be one for a populous area) a powerful and important official, who has large sums to disburse and quite an army of workers under his orders. The chairmanship of the organizing committee of the county and city of New York, for instance, is a post of great responsibility and influence, in which high executive gifts find a worthy sphere for their exercise.
One function and one only—besides that of adopting platforms—is beyond the competence of these committees—the choice of candidates. That belongs to the other and parallel division of the party organization, the nominating assemblies.
Every election district, by which I mean every local area or constituency which chooses a person for any office or post, administrative, legislative, or judicial, has a party meeting to select the party candidate for that office. This is called nominating. If the district is not subdivided, i.e., does not contain any lesser districts, its meeting is called a primary. A primary has two duties. One is to select the candidates for its own local district offices. Thus in the country a township primary4 nominates the candidates for township offices, in a city a ward primary nominates those for ward offices (if any). The other duty is to elect delegates to the nominating meetings of larger areas, such as the county or congressional district in which the township is situated, or the city to which the ward belongs. The primary is composed of all the party voters resident within the bounds of the township or ward. They are not too numerous, for in practice the majority do not attend, to meet in one room, and they are assumed to be all alike interested. But as the party voters in such a large area as a county, congressional district, or city, are too numerous to be able to meet and deliberate in one room, they must act through representatives, and entrust the choice of candidates for office to a body called a nominating convention.5 This body is composed of delegates from all the primaries within its limits, chosen at those primaries for the sole purpose of sitting in the convention and of there selecting the candidates.
Sometimes a convention of this kind has itself to choose delegates to proceed to a still higher convention for a larger area. The greatest of all nominating bodies, that which is called the national convention and nominates the party candidate for the presidency, is entirely composed of delegates from other conventions, no primary being directly represented in it. As a rule, however, there are only two sets of nominating authorities, the primary which selects candidates for its own petty offices, the convention composed of the delegates from all the primaries in the local circumscriptions of the district for which the convention acts.
A primary, of course, sends delegates to a number of different conventions, because its area, let us say the township or ward, is included in a number of different election districts, each of which has its own convention. Thus the same primary will in a city choose delegates to at least the following conventions, and probably to one or two others:6 (a) To the city convention, which nominates the mayor and other city officers; (b) to the assembly district convention, which nominates candidates for the lower house of the state legislature; (c) to the senatorial district convention, which nominates candidates for the state senate; (d) to the congressional district convention, which nominates candidates for Congress; (e) to the state convention, which nominates candidates for the governorship and other state offices. Sometimes, however, the nominating body for an assembly district is a primary and not a convention. In New York City the assembly district is the unit, and each of the thirty districts has its primary.
This seems complex: but it is a reflection of the complexity of government, there being everywhere three authorities, federal, state, and local (this last further subdivided), covering the same ground, yet the two former quite independent of one another, and the third for many purposes distinct from the second.
The course of business is as follows. A township or ward primary is summoned by the local party managing committee, who fix the hour and place of meeting, or if there be not such a committee, then by some permanent officer of the organization in manner prescribed by the bye-laws. A primary for a larger area is usually summoned by the county committee. If candidates have to be chosen for local offices, various names are submitted and either accepted without a division or put to the vote, the person who gets most votes being declared chosen to be the party candidate. He is said to have received the party nomination. The selection of delegates to the various conventions is conducted in the same way. The local committee has usually prepared beforehand a list of names of persons to be chosen to serve as delegates, but any voter present may bring forward other names. All names, if not accepted by general consent, are then voted on. At the close of the proceedings the chairman signs the list of delegates chosen to the approaching convention or conventions, if more than one, and adjourns the meeting sine die.
The delegates so chosen proceed in due course to their respective conventions, which are usually held a few days after the primaries, and a somewhat longer period before the elections for offices.7 The convention is summoned by the managing committee for the district it exists for, and when a sufficient number of delegates are present, someone proposes a temporary chairman, or the delegate appointed for the purpose by the committee of the district for which the convention is being held “calls the meeting to order” as temporary chairman. This person names a committee on credentials, which forthwith examines the credentials presented by the delegates from the primaries, and admits those whom it deems duly accredited. Then a permanent chairman is proposed and placed in the chair, and the convention is held to be “organized,” i.e., duly constituted. The managing committee have almost always arranged beforehand who shall be proposed as candidates for the party nominations, and their nominees are usually adopted. However, any delegate may propose any person he thinks fit, being a recognized member of the party, and carry him on a vote if he can. The person adopted by a majority of delegates’ votes becomes the party candidate, and is said to have “received the nomination.” The convention sometimes, but not always, also amuses itself by passing resolutions expressive of its political sentiments; or if it is a state convention or a national convention, it adopts a platform, touching on, or purporting to deal with, the main questions of the day. It then, having fulfilled its mission, adjourns sine die, and the rest of the election business falls to the managing committee. It must be remembered that primaries and conventions, unlike the local party associations of England, are convoked but once, make their nominations, and vanish. They are swans which sing their one song and die.
The national convention held every fourth year before a presidential election needs a fuller description, which I shall give presently. Meantime three features of the system just outlined may be adverted to.
Every voter belonging to the party in the local area for which the primary is held, is presumably entitled to appear and vote in it. In rural districts, where everybody knows everybody else, there is no difficulty about admission, for if a Democrat came into a Republican primary, or a Republican from North Adams tried to vote in the Republican primary of Lafayetteville, he would be recognized as an intruder and expelled. But in cities where people do not know their neighbours by headmark, it becomes necessary to have regular lists of the party voters entitled to a voice in the primary. These are made up by the local committee, which may exclude persons whom, though they call themselves Republicans (or Democrats, as the case may be), it deems not loyal members of the party. The usual test is, Did the claimant vote the party ticket at the last important election, generally the presidential election, or that for the state governorship? If he did not, he may be excluded. Sometimes, however, the local rules of the party require everyone admitted to the list of party voters to be admitted by the votes of the existing members, who may reject him at their pleasure, and also exact from each member two pledges, to obey the local committee, and to support the party nominations, the breach of either pledge being punishable by expulsion. In many primaries voters supposed to be disagreeably independent are kept out either by the votes of the existing members or by the application of these strict tests. Thus it happens that three-fourths or even four-fifths of the party voters in a primary area may not be on the list and entitled to raise their voice in the primary for the selection of candidates or delegates. Another regulation, restricting nominations to those who are enrolled members of the regular organization, makes persons so kept off the list ineligible as party candidates.
Every member of a nominating meeting, be it a primary or a convention of delegates, is deemed to be bound by the vote of the majority to support the candidate whom the majority select, whether or no an express pledge to that effect has been given. And in the case of a convention, a delegate is generally held to bind those whom he represents, i.e., the voters at the primary which sent him. Of course no compulsion is possible, but long usage and an idea of fair play have created a sentiment of honour (so-called) and party loyalty strong enough, with most people and in all but extreme cases, to secure for the party’s candidate the support of the whole party organization in the district.8 It is felt that the party must be kept together, and that he who has come into the nominating meeting hoping to carry his own candidate must abide by the decision of the majority. The vote of a majority has a sacredness in America not yet reached in Europe.
As respects the freedom left to delegates to vote at their own pleasure or under the instructions of their primary, and to vote individually or as a solid body, the practice is not uniform. Sometimes they are sent up to the nominating convention without instructions, even without the obligation to “go solid.” Sometimes they are expressly directed, or it is distinctly understood by them and by the primary, that they are to support the claims of a particular person to be selected as candidate, or that they are at any rate to vote all together for one person. Occasionally they are even given a list arranged in order of preference, and told to vote for A. B., failing him for C. D., failing him for E. F., these being persons whose names have already been mentioned as probable candidates for the nomination. This, however, would only happen in the case of the greater offices, such as those of member of Congress or governor of a state. The point is in practice less important than it seems, because in most cases, whether there be any specific and avowed instruction or not, it is well settled beforehand by those who manage the choice of delegates what candidate any set of delegates are to support, or at least whose lead they are to follow in the nominating convention.
Note further how complex is the machinery needed to enable the party to concentrate its force in support of its candidates for all these places, and how large the number of persons constituting the machinery. Three sets of offices, municipal or county, state, federal, have to be filled; three different sets of nominating bodies are therefore needed. If we add together all the members of all the conventions included in these three sets, the number of persons needed to serve as delegates will be found to reach a high total, even if some of them serve in more than one convention. Men whose time is valuable will refuse the post of delegate, gladly leaving to others who desire it the duty of selecting candidates for offices to which they seldom themselves aspire. However, as we shall see, such men are but rarely permitted to become delegates, even when they desire the function.
“Why these tedious details?” the European reader may exclaim. “Of what consequence can they be compared to the Constitution and laws of the country?” Patience! These details have more significance and make more difference to the working of the government than many of the provisions of the Constitution itself. The mariner feels the trade winds which sweep over the surface of the Pacific and does not perceive the coral insects which are at work beneath its waves, but it is by the labour of these insects that islands grow, and reefs are built upon which ships perish.
Note on Recent Legislation Regarding Primaries
Soon after 1890 the sins of the machine, and the abuse of the system of nomination by primaries and conventions described in this and succeeding chapters, led to an effort to cure those abuses and to secure the ordinary citizen in his freedom of selecting candidates for office by bringing party nominations under the authority of the law and surrounding them with safeguards similar to those which surround elections. Thus statutes have been enacted in nearly all the states which deal to a greater or less extent with the times and manner of holding primary meetings for the nomination of party candidates for office and of delegates for party conventions. Oklahoma, the latest of the new states of the Union, entered the Union with a constitution containing four important constitutional provisions on the subject of primary elections. (See these in Appendix to Vol. I.)
The regulations imposed upon the holding of these party meetings differ widely in the several states. They range from minor provisions concerning the dates of primaries, the preparation of the ballots, and the regularization of the methods of counting, up to sweeping and drastic measures, such as are found in Oregon and Wisconson, for instance, requiring the nomination of nearly all party candidates (including United States senators) at public primaries conducted under official supervision.
It would be impossible to give within moderate compass a full account of these statutes for they vary from state to state and are often complicated in their provisions. Moreover, they are frequently changed. All that can be done here is to summarize the tendencies they disclose, and to indicate briefly those features in the system of party nomination which are now being made subject to legislative interference.
Many laws fix the dates on which primaries should be held for all the political parties and also prescribe conditions as to the times at which the primaries and conventions shall be summoned.
The determination of who may vote at a primary and who are to be deemed legitimate and regular members of a particular party entitled to vote at its primaries is a vexed question on which no uniformity of practice exists. Broadly speaking there are two systems. Under the “open primary” plan the use of the so-called “Australian” secret ballot enables the voter to vote a party primary ticket without declaring to which party he belongs, though, to prevent him from voting for more than one party at a primary, it is generally provided that ballots cast for any person as candidate for a nomination are to be counted for that person only as a candidate of the party upon whose ticket his name is written. In Wisconsin, for instance, the primary is secret, and the voter may cast his ballot as he pleases. Under the “closed primary” plan the voter is subjected to some test determining his party affiliation, and can vote only for the candidates of that party. In some states he is required to enrol himself as a member of some particular party if he wishes to take part in the proceedings of the primary. So in California, under a statute of 1909, the voter must declare the political party with which he intends to affiliate, otherwise he cannot vote at the primary; and it is provided that at the primary he shall receive the ballot of that party and of no other. So in Minnesota the voter must declare his allegiance before he receives the party ballot. In some states he must even announce his intention to support the party at the election next following; in some he must bind himself to support the persons nominated at the primary (so in Louisiana and Texas). Other states allow the authorities of the party themselves to fix the test of membership in a party which shall qualify the person to cast a primary vote.
Many states have a separate official ballot for each party at the primary, but others are content to regulate the colour, size, etc., of the party ballot.
Those states which require all parties to hold their primaries on the same day generally require them to use the same polling place and official ballot boxes.
The conduct of primaries is now generally placed under the supervision of regular officials being the same as those who conduct the elections: and the hours of opening and closing the primary, as well as the particular method of voting at it are prescribed.
The official expenses of primaries are borne by the same public authority which bears the general election expenses.
For the prevention of corruption and other offences at primaries the usual precautions against bribery and fraudulent voting at elections are prescribed.
The extent to which the primaries are used for the nomination of candidates varies from state to state. In general it is only delegates to conventions and members of political committees who are required to be selected by ballot. Sometimes it is left to the local committee of the party to determine whether or not the primary shall be used for nomination to local offices. The laws of Wisconsin, Oregon, Nebraska, and several other states require the primary to be used for the nomination of United States senators, who, of course, have to be elected by the legislature, and of all other officers except presidential electors, school superintendents and certain judicial persons.
Many legal questions have arisen and many decisions have been delivered upon these enactments when it has been alleged that provisions of a particular primary law are unconstitutional.
The further extension of the principle of legislative control over the operations of political parties has become a leading question in the politics of not a few states. Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oklahoma might seem to have gone as far as it is possible to go in this direction, but, as has already been observed, many states are continuing to make experiments in the matter. A succinct account of the condition of legislation on the subject in 1908 may be found in a Report of the Connecticut State Commissioners of January 1909. In 1914 every state had laws under which some candidates were nominated in direct primaries, and a majority had established statewide direct primaries applicable to all or nearly all offices except (in a few cases) judgeships.
Regarding the practical value of these primary laws as a means of relieving the good average citizen from the yoke of party machines, opinion has not yet settled itself. The new laws were disliked, and in some states opposed, by the professional politicians; and this naturally confirmed the reformers in their expectation of good results. In some states, however, it is alleged that the professionals have succeeded in manipulating the new system so as practically to reestablish their own control, although, of course, at the cost of more trouble to themselves than they had previously to take. In other states this does not seem to have happened; and the voters think themselves more free than formerly. The extreme complexity of some primary laws, and the long and elaborately constructed ballot placed before the voter, do give ground for the apprehension that the professional politicians may lay hold of and work a system which, in some of its forms, no one but an expert can master. And it is also feared that the expense of working primaries, which are practically another set of elections, may prove a heavy burden both on the public revenue, so far as it is chargeable thereon, and upon the candidates, who will have to spend money in a good many ways, some perhaps illegitimate. As President Lowell says (Public Opinion and Popular Government, p. 150): “Under the usual system of direct primaries a special organization to solicit the nomination is normally a necessity, even when the only question is between the rival ambitions of individuals. Such an organization is very expensive and can hardly be undertaken unless the candidate or his friends are prepared to spend money freely. The contests for nomination at the direct primaries in Wisconsin in 1909 are said to have cost the candidates $802,659.”
That provision of many of these laws which requires a voter at a primary to declare himself beforehand a member of the political party, or even binds him to support the primary’s nominee, seems in itself objectionable, but has in some states been thought needed as a protection against tricks. May it not, however, be thought that such a provision unduly limits the voter’s freedom? Why should the citizen be obliged to put himself into a sheep pen and feel himself bound legally, or, if not legally, yet to some extent morally, to support a particular party candidate at a future election? Who can tell what persons may be selected, or what further light may be thrown on the records of those persons, or what aspect the issues will have assumed on the following day?
Apart, however, from this objection, Europeans whose habit of regarding party organization as a purely voluntary matter and parties as fluid and changing, not solid and permanent entities, makes them averse to any legal recognition of parties as concrete and authoritative bodies existing within the community, are disposed to ask whether these laws may not be a sort of counsel of despair, an abandonment by the good citizens of their old hope of extinguishing or superseding the machine altogether by the voluntary and unfettered action of the voters themselves. Were those citizens who have no interest except in good government, those who value their party only because it is a means of giving effect to their views of the true needs and aims of the nation, to take hold themselves, and by their own constant presence and activity make meetings for the nomination of candidates serve their proper purpose of selecting those men whom they feel to be their best men, this recourse to state regulation and supervision might be dispensed with. In Britain, however, parties are so much less organized and so much less powerful as organizations than they are in the United States that the reflections which occur to an English mind may be deemed inapplicable to American conditions; and it is plain that in many states the reformers hold these primary laws to be a long step toward the overthrow of the machine and of the evils associated with its action.
Pending further experience of the working of these measures, the variety of which gives ground for hope that one form may ultimately approve itself as the best, all that it seems safe to say is that the rapid adoption by one state after another of the plan of invoking the law to restore to voters their freedom in the choice of candidates shows that the evils of the old system have become widely recognized, and that the spirit of reform, now thoroughly awakened, will doubtless persist until some solid and lasting improvements have been secured.
 The system described in this chapter has been recently much modified, but as no new system has yet taken its place over the whole country, it is best to let the chapter stand, while adding a note at the end.
 Within the state committees and national committee there is almost always a small executive committee in practical control.
 The business of registration is undertaken by the public authority for the locality, instead of being, as in England, partially left to the action of the individual citizen or of the parties.
 I take township and ward as examples, but in parts of the country where the township is not the unit of local government (see Chapter 48 ante), the local unit, whatever it is, must be substituted.
 Sometimes, however, a primary is held for a whole congressional district or city. As to recent changes in the primary system, see note at end of this chapter. All that is said here must be taken as subject to what is said hereafter regarding the new statutory primaries created in many states.
 There may be also a county convention for county offices, and a judicial district convention for judgeships, but in a large city or county the county convention delegates may also be delegates to the congressional convention, perhaps also to the state assembly district and senatorial district conventions.
 In the case of elections to the presidency and to the governorship of a state the interval between the nominating convention and the election is much longer—in the former case nearly four months.
The procedure described here is that of state and local conventions. For national nominating conventions, see Chapter 69 post.
 The obligation is however much less strict in the case of municipal elections, in which party considerations sometimes count for little.