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By Ronald Fraser

While my recent run for a board seat in the Town of Colden was, vote-wise, a bust, my peek at the system raised an important question: Do local political parties undermine elections and alienate voters? A book by former U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards, “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans,” helped me make sense of it all.

For two decades, says Edwards, “American voters have grown angrier and more frustrated with a government that they theoretically control. After all, they are citizens, not subjects, and they live in a democracy.”

Once formed to deliver good government and promote the general welfare, America’s political parties, says Edwards, have become polarized, rival ideological camps in pursuit of power. By promoting candidates with extreme views, party-controlled primaries perpetuate this inter-party rivalry.

To ease the grip of political parties on the candidate selection process, Edwards favors open primaries – already practiced in Louisiana, Washington state and California – in which every candidate for an office, regardless of party, appears on a single primary ballot. All registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, not party bosses, select the top two vote-getters to run against one another in the general election.

Political bosses in Erie County also skillfully use endorsements and party primaries to hand-pick candidates for election – but with a twist: Inter-party collusion, not inter-party rivalry, appears to control the process.

At one time, the 28,000 Independence Party voters in Erie County could trust that candidates appearing on the party ballot line were selected by local party officials. That was before party bosses in Albany hijacked the process and disbanded local committees.

Now, instead of independently selecting candidates, party bosses in Albany behave as if they are an arm of the Republican Party. Candidates endorsed by the Colden Republican Party, for example, were magically turned into Independence Party candidates in Albany.

The appearance of collusion is evident among local party committees. In the recent election to fill Town Board seats, instead of seeking out Democrats to run against candidates from other parties, the Colden Democratic Committee endorsed three registered Republicans and one registered Democrat. The same three Republicans were also endorsed by the town’s Republican Committee and the Albany-based Independence Party.

In town after town, the same candidate for office appears on multiple party slates. Is this because members of separate Republican, Democratic and Conservative selection committees independently ranked that candidate above all others? Or, is inter-party collusion a better explanation?

Replacing party bosses with open primaries in Erie County will give voters a greater say over the general election ballot and may draw more citizens into the political arena both as candidates and as voters. It is worth a try.

Ronald Fraser is a member of the Town of Colden Environmental Board.