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Abolish Primary Elections

Question: Why should we abolish primary elections?

Richard Pildes: Well let’s talk first about the problem to which abolishing primaries might be the solution.  The problem is the hyper-polarized nature of politics in America.  Not just today, but over the last 20-25 years or so.  And primary elections have turned out to be one of the causes that contribute to the extreme polarization of politics today and it’s one of the few things that contributes to polarization in politics that we might actually be able to do something about by making an institutional change.  

So, let me remind people of the history of primary elections.  Initially, they came in, in the early 20th Century as a way of taking power from the political bosses and putting it in the hands of “the people.”  And for many decades, that seemed like a good solution.  The problem is that, it’s hard enough to get voters to show up on general election day and it’s even harder to get them to show up on primary election day, as time has gone on.  And what happens is, the people who show up for primary elections tend to be much more extreme, much more the activist wings of the political parties and it’s a much, much, much smaller turnout; a much smaller electorate.  

So primary elections tend to be one of the ways in which we end up with either an extreme right or extreme left candidate.  And, if you notice, primary elections are where lots of the moderates are driven out of politics.  So if one thinks that rebuilding a center in American politics would be a desirable thing, you know; finding a way to encourage moderates and centrists to run for office, to get elected to office; finding people who are more willing to pursue policy agendas across partisan differences. If we’re going to try to cut through the extreme polarized nature of our politics, finding ways to get candidates seeking office and candidates elected to office who are more likely to reflect the center of the country is the place to focus.  And if we eliminated primary elections, there is some reason to think we could make a dent in this problem. 

Now, what would replace primary elections if we eliminate them, I’m not in any way an anti-democrat; I’ve spent my career studying elections and democracy.  And we’re not looking for a return to say, “party bosses” picking candidates, but there are systems of voting that allow people to show up just once and vote for candidates that basically get us what we want out of primaries and get us the general election at the same time.  And let me describe the main system that does this.  It’s called instant runoff voting.  A number of cities already use this in the United States and we could expand the use to the state level for state elections and congressional elections and senate elections.  

Basically, in an instant runoff voting, the voters show up once for the general election and they rank candidates in order.  You know, the put a one, a two, a three, a four in favor... in the rank order of their preferences.  And basically the counting system, which is a little complicated to explain, ultimately figures out who is the dominant preference of the voters. Or if you’re choosing two candidates to go into a general election, if you want a second election, this system can pick out the top two vote-getters.  

But the big idea behind something like instant-runoff voting to put it in kind of easy-to-understand terms, is it collapses the primary election and the general election into a single event.  So everybody has to show up only once.  The candidates are listed on the ballot; they can have the party label.  There might be maybe three or four Republicans, three or four Democrats.  Maybe candidates from other parties.  As I say, you rank them in the order you prefer.  You only rank as many candidates as you have a view about.  And the vote-counting system then just figures out how to choose the winning candidate based on how people have selected their votes.  

What makes this idea dangerous?

Richard Pildes: First of all, anytime you’re talking about making any change to the system of elections in the United States—there’s tremendous inertia and resistance and risk aversion about that.  And maybe understandably, because we take pride in the fact that we’ve had continuous elections for longer than any other democracy.  Apart from the Civil War, we’ve had tremendous political stability.  You know, people are rightly concerned about any change to the basic way we run elections.  That’s one thing that makes it dangerous.  

The second thing that makes it dangerous is that there’s a concern people are going to have that you are taking away their right to vote.  You know, the idea of abolishing an election, or a primary election, is scary—and understandably scary.  And the fact that you’re replacing it with a different kind of election, you know, ought to mitigate that fear, but there’s no question that there would be tremendous anxiety about the idea of doing that.  

The third thing that makes it dangerous is that all systems of voting have advantages and disadvantages.  There’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.  So you’re inevitably making trade-offs.  And one of the concerns about instant-runoff voting is that people depend a lot on the clarity of the party label when they’re deciding who to vote for.  If you have instant-runoff voting where, say, the candidates can identify as a Republican or a Democrat, they don’t have to be selected by the party or by the party’s voters.  They just put that Republican or Democrat next to their name on the ballot.... then maybe they’re not really representative of Republican or Democratic Party views, maybe it confuses voters.  So there are ways of dealing with that issue, but that’s another kind of concern, or reason that people would find the idea dangerous.

Recorded August 18, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

Primaries were conceived to keep power out of the hands of political party bosses, but now they contribute to our country’s hyper-polarization and should be abolished.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

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Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."