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Under Indiana law, any political party which captures 10% of the vote in the general election for Secretary of State is entitled to government-administered statewide primary elections (similarly, parties which capture 2% are guaranteed general election ballot placement). With some data suggesting Libertarian candidate Jeff Maurer might reach that 10% threshold this year, a friend of the site reached out to ask if any parties other than the Republican and Democratic parties had ever held primary elections in Indiana.
Before we answer that question, some quick background: Since the advent of modern political parties in the late 1820’s (I’ve written about that here), parties have tended to nominate their candidates for the general election through conventions and caucuses. This was entirely true through the end of the 19th century, and even throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries many nominees in Indiana continued to be chosen in this manner. Consider: Libertarians currently select all their nominees via convention, and even Republicans and Democrats select most statewide candidates in this manner. Additionally, despite the existence of presidential primary elections, presidential nominees aren’t actually selected until national conventions are held (technically, state presidential primary elections aren’t selecting nominees directly, but either selecting national convention delegates or binding state delegates to vote in a certain way for a certain number of ballots).
It was during the Progressive Era, largely centered around the presidencies of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, that primary elections began to be adopted. In practice—consistent with most Progressive reforms meant to dilute concentrations of political power—this method of candidate selection was meant to remove power from the small group of ward or precinct bosses that ran political machines in many cities and states.
The push for primaries picked up steam nationally after the 1912 presidential election, which saw Roosevelt unsuccessfully challenge Taft for the nomination at the Republican National Convention before forming the Bull Moose, or Progressive, Party and serving as its candidate. The split between cost the GOP the presidency, but saw Progressives pick up legislative and Congressional seats across the country. Without Roosevelt as its standard-bearer in 1914 and 1916, however, the momentum of the nascent party was blunted; it collapsed and mostly folded back into the Republican Party by the end of the decade.
This national storyline largely played out in Indiana along the same broad strokes. In 1901, the state legislature passed the first primary election law, but it only applied it to county, township, and city elections in counties with cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants. Further, only parties who had captured 10% of the vote in the previous election were eligible to utilize the direct primary selection method, but the choice to use it was optional (contingent upon a vote of that party’s precinct committeemen, and the costs on conducting it were required to be paid for by the party itself).
In 1907, the law was amended to make this local primary system mandatory in counties with at least 36,000 inhabitants, and optional in smaller counties. The costs were shifted to the county government (which could charge a ballot access fee to candidates in such elections) and the scope of offices nominated expanded to include state and congressional convention delegates. The law would remain virtually untouched for nearly a decade, when fallout from the 1912 presidential election and the rise of the Progressive Party compelled state legislators to act.
That fallout manifested itself in a few ways. First, the Progressive Party proved to be stronger than the “regular” Republican Party in Indiana, though it enabled nearly complete Democratic control of state government. While Democrats swept all statewide races that year (though only with a plurality of around 43% in each), the Progressive candidate received more votes than the Republican candidate in every race. Progressives had a similar effect in state legislative races, leading to Democratic super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, but did manage to pick up 2 State Senate seats (Republicans won 8, and Democrats 40) and 1 State House seat (to Republicans 4 and Democrats 95).
Second, the law at the time was ambiguous as to which election should be referred to when determining the 10% threshold eligibility to conduct a primary (and relatedly, to hold a seat on a local election board, as the law provided seats to the county clerk and the two parties receiving the most votes in the “last” general election). After the Republican Clerk for Marion County appointed a Democrat and Republican to the board, and refused to conduct a primary election for the Progressives for the 1913 city elections, the Progressive Party sued under the premise that the 1912 election was the “last” election held under the law. Republicans countered that because the primary was being held for city elections then the law must refer to the last city elections, which were held before the Progressive Party had formed. A judge ruled in favor of the Progressives, giving them both the board seat and the ability to hold primary elections in Marion County that year, the first time under Indiana law a third party was able to do so.
But it’s important to note that this April ruling came after the March 10 conclusion of the 1913 legislative session, and at the time the legislature only met in odd-numbered years (the legislature would not meet annually until 1970). This meant the General Assembly couldn’t clarify the primary election law until they reconvened in 1915. Meanwhile, under the existing law Progressives were able to hold primaries in several large counties as the law required for the 1914 election (including Allen, Vanderburgh, Lake, St. Joseph, Vigo, and Marion), but the optional nature in smaller counties meant it was not a statewide primary. Without a figurehead such as Roosevelt leading a national charge—and likely because many Republicans realized a split vote meant Democratic control—voter participation in Progressive primaries was only a small fraction of participation in Republican primaries. Similarly, in the general election that fall Progressives saw their vote shares plummet from about 25% in 1912 to just 15%. Republican votes rebounded from 23% to nearly 37%, but Democratic candidates still squeaked out plurality victories in every statewide race.
When the General Assembly convened a few months later, they made three significant changes to the primary election law, two of which still guide our process today:
- First, regardless of county size primary elections were made mandatory statewide for any party which received 10% of the vote in the last like-election (meaning even-numbered years in which state elections were held, or odd-numbered city election years). In moving to this system, it abolished county and congressional party conventions, leaving only state conventions intact.
- Second, the primary system was expanded to include direct primaries for U.S. Congress, Indiana Senate, and Indiana House seats, and preferential primaries for U.S. President, U.S. Senate, and Governor. In a preferential primary, if a candidate won a majority of the vote in one of these races, delegates would be bound to vote for them at national or state conventions; if no candidate received a majority, then convention delegates were free to engage in a traditional convention nominating process. All other statewide offices (Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, etc.) were excluded from primary ballots and were left as convention-nominated offices. In 1929, the preferential primaries for U.S. President, U.S. Senate and Governor were abolished, leaving the choice up to state conventions delegates, until primaries for U.S. President were established in 1953, and for the other two offices in 1975.
- Third, for the binding primary offices on the ballot, ranked-choice voting was utilized where voters would indicate their first and second choices. The lowest vote-getter would be dropped, and their second-choice votes would be reassigned to the relevant candidate. This process would continue until one candidate had a majority; if there was no majority between the final two candidates, then the candidate with a plurality would be nominated. This proved so unpopular, however, that the General Assembly repealed it in the 1917 session.
This leads us to the election of 1916, when the Progressive Party—owing to their 1914 showing—did indeed hold primary elections statewide. But turnout remained low, and the party had collapsed by the time the November general election arrived. Republicans swept the statewide vote, with Progressives only pulling about 0.6%, finishing fifth in every race behind even the Socialist and Prohibition Party candidates. By 1918, the party was completely gone and fielded no candidates. It wouldn’t be until 1978 that a third party candidate (Elnora Lawrence of the American Party) cracked even 1% in a Secretary of State race (which eventually became the bellwether race for threshold eligibility), and it wouldn’t happen again until 1994 when Steve Dillon gained fixed ballot status for the Libertarian Party by gaining 2%. Libertarians have since tended to hover around 3% of the vote in Secretary of State races, with the exception of 2010 when Mike Wherry captured 5.9%.
So back to the question at hand: Should Maurer surpass the 10% threshold, Libertarians wouldn’t be the first third party to earn primary elections in Indiana. But—because the Progressives got 10% in 1914 and the statewide mandatory primary law wasn’t enacted until 1915—they would be the first third-party to reach that threshold under that law.
- “All parties agree and Salsbury is appointed.” The Indianapolis News. April 21, 1913 (p. 4).
- Connell, J.F. “Indiana Primary Laws.” Indiana Magazine of History. Vol. 18, No. 3 (September 1922) (pp. 224-238).
- Henley, L.W. “The 1914 political drift.” Greenfield Republican. September 17, 1914 (p. 5).
- “Indiana State Primary Law: Information regarding operation of new law.” The Indianapolis Recorder. February 26, 1916 (p. 7).
- “Presidential primary bill up to Governor.” The Indianapolis Star. March 7, 1953 (p. 1).
- “Primary repeal bill due for House action.” The Indianapolis News. March 6, 1929 (p. 16).
- Stout, George W. “Court upholds position taken by Progressives.” The Indianapolis Star. April 19, 1913 (p. 1).