A Primary Principle

This column appeared Tuesday, July 24, 2018, in The Manhattan Mercury.


I am an unaffiliated, independent voter. Agnostic, in the sense that I have doubts about the vehicles currently in place in my home state to allow me to exercise democracy to the fullest and fairest extent.

There’s a reason I am unaffiliated. Ideology has become more important than collaboration. Until or unless that pendulum swings back, I prefer not to play with either party, thank you very much. I have evolved into this position over 20 years and my comfort level with it rises in direct proportion to the failure of collaborative policymaking.

Similarly, as comfort and pride of my unaffiliated voter status has flowed, discomfort with the participatory infrastructure of primary elections in Kansas has ebbed.

This is not a column about ‘why.’ It’s a column about ‘how.’  

I struggle between two arguments.

Argument #1: I don’t vote in the Kansas primary election on principle. I am not a member of either of the two organized political parties around which the rules are written.  

Argument #2: When I don’t vote, I abdicate my civic responsibility.

For me to vote in a primary election in Kansas, I must declare a party. The system forces me to abandon my personal principles. I must lie. To the system and to myself. I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. There are always people on both party primary ballots for whom I want to vote.

Can’t do it, son. Pick a side.  

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If I am true to myself, I take the moral high ground and rather than swing by St. Thomas More Catholic Church shortly after 7 a.m. on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August, I’ll swing through Radina’s on the Hill for a double dark roast with a shot of espresso.

A shot in the dark, in barista nomenclature.

I have also marched into that same polling place on Kansas primary election days, greeted the neighbor lady volunteering at the table, indicated my independent status, requested one party ballot and voted. Did my vote make a difference? Absolutely. For somebody else’s political party.

A couple days later when it’s convenient, I’ve trudged into the Riley County Clerk’s office, requested the form to revert to unaffiliated, checked the proper boxes and got on with my appointed rounds.

It feels like drinking weak coffee. My first thought is my democracy is failing me. Why can’t I vote for whomever I believe is the best candidate? My second thought, which is always better than the first, is wait a minute, genius. You don’t live in an autocracy (yet). The essence of democracy is ‘we the people.’

I don’t claim to be an expert on Kansas election law, and I am not fluent on how the existing primary election processes came about, but I have no doubt they were designed during an era when the two major parties worked together. Since this is an opinion column and I’m bumping up against my deadline, I guess I figure if you want to learn that history, Google beckons. Knock yourself out.

But I do know a thing or two about system change. I know that change of the magnitude required to ease my troubled unaffiliated mind only happens if and when a critical mass of we the people decide we are troubled enough with the status quo that we are moved to action. I also know that such change is always preceded by dialogue, conversation, debate and very often accompanied by cogently written opinion columns in the local daily. As always, please draw your own conclusions on the cogency of this thought piece.

What’s a principle for, if not to stand on? Maintaining the courage of my convictions assumes not only that I have convictions, but courage. I want to be rigorously honest with myself and others, but I also want to vote. Is there a sweet spot that lies somewhere between fulfilling my civic duty and standing on principle?

I’ve still no clue which of the two arguments will drive my actions on Tuesday, August 7.