Teaching about Primary Elections with the Internet

By Risinger, C. Frederick | Social Education, January-February 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching about Primary Elections with the Internet


Risinger, C. Frederick, Social Education


Most social studies topics are taught and discussed at a few specific grade levels. The Revolutionary War is primarily taught in grades 5, 8, and 11. The geography and culture of other nations is taught in most states in grades 6 and 7. Civics and U.S. Government are generally taught in the 12th grade. But one topic that is frequently taught at any and all grade levels is elections, particularly during presidential election years. There are numerous organizations that produce materials and maintain websites to help students at all grade levels learn about and even participate in mock election activities. I have recommended several of these websites in previous columns.

There is, however, one aspect of elections that is not covered very well: primary elections. Many of the election simulations either leave out the primary procedure or provide only perfunctory coverage. One of the better sites for election-focused activities has dozens of web pages, but the only mention of the presidential primary system is found in two short sentences: "Before candidates run in the national election, they run in state primaries or caucuses. Primary and caucus voters elect candidates who will run on each party's ticket. Nominees for each party are then nominated at the National Conventions."

This lack of interest in the primary system also seems to be echoed by voter disinterest. Nationally, less than 25 percent of registered voters vote in primary elections. This figure is higher in presidential election years, particularly in states considered significant, such as New Hampshire because it's the first and California, because it's the largest and usually holds its vote toward the end of the primary season. Many people shun primaries because they don't want to identify themselves with a particular political party. In some cases, an incumbent may not even be challenged, which lowers the vote total for that party.

Yet, we know that primaries are important and crucial to the U.S. governmental system. Primaries are the way that parties select candidates for all offices--ranging from the U.S. president to each party's local precinct chair. Voters at the general election in November are only choosing from among those elected earlier in the year by a small, strongly partisan group of voters. That's why the common wisdom for a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination is to "run to the right" to get the nomination and then spend the regular campaign trying to get back to center. The same approach (only reversed) is used by Democratic candidates.

I have been one of those precinct chairs for nearly sixteen years. I've participated in four primary elections--sometimes with opposition and sometimes unopposed. I know how difficult it is to persuade citizens to vote in primary elections. And I have seen many times how only a few committed voters can defeat an incumbent or nominate someone who has little chance to win in the general election.

The approaching presidential election provides social studies teachers with an excellent opportunity to teach our students about the role of the primary election in the overall election process. A spirited Democratic primary with (as of this writing) nine candidates can be contrasted with the uncontested re-nomination of President Bush. Bill Clinton enjoyed the same luxury in 1996. Students will be able to analyze whether a tough primary campaign can prove damaging to the eventual Democratic nominee.

One of the problems of teaching about primaries is that there is no consistency across the country.. Each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands makes its own election laws. Some have party conventions instead of a primary. Some have both elections and a convention. In Wyoming, for whatever reasons, the Democrats have a primary election in March and the Republicans have a convention in May.

Primary elections began during the Progressive Period as a political reform designed to open up the political boss-controlled candidate selection process to the people.

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