What to Think About the US Primary Process

The current political season has been marked with unprecedented levels of disillusionment in both political parties. This is most evident in the success of the insurgent candidates of this election–relative success in the case of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race, who is far exceeding expectations though still behind, and absolute success in the case of Donald Trump, who seems all but certain to win a majority of delegates prior to the Republican National Convention. As two different brands of populism, Trump and Sanders both clearly represent an anti-establishment position, and their views overlap in a few areas, especially trade (less of it) and the appropriate size of government (larger).

Of course, it’s still probably too soon to tell whether either of these candidates will become a major party nominee. The road looks pretty steep for Sanders, and even though Trump is technically winning, the Republican nomination is likely to go to a brokered convention, where Trump’s support could rapidly disappear.

This situation–where two widely popular candidates might lose the primary election to more conventional candidates–has many people getting frustrating with the primary process itself. On the Democratic side, this was most apparent after the problems with the New York primary, which is a very closed primary to start with and experienced many voter complaints on the day of, primarily from Bernie Sanders supporters in the reports I read. And on the Republican side, outrage swelled after Donald Trump earned no delegates in Colorado due to its unique election rules.

The frustration is obviously understandable. And it has bubbled over into condemnation of the primary process itself. And there’s a lot not to like:

  • The use of “superdelegates” in the Democratic race allows a party insider to cast a vote that is equivalent to a pledged delegate from the actual votes that take place. So for example, the Democratic primary in Delaware yields 21 delegates decided based on the votes. That means, a random political party insider’s vote counts for roughly as much as 5% of Delaware voters. And not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of superdelegates are supporting Hillary Clinton.
  • The use of closed primaries in both parties. These primaries allow only registered members of the party to vote in the primary election. And given that party membership in both parties is near historic lows, this disenfranchises many voters. In the context of the New York primary, Bernie Sanders noted, presumably accurately, that 27% of eligible New Yorkers couldn’t participate because they weren’t registered for either party.
  • The use of a brokered convention to overturn the will of the voters, which is of particular importance in the Republican party and the #NeverTrump movement.
Again, it’s perfectly understandable to be irritated about these things. But the fact is that the Republican and Democratic parties are independent, private organizations at the end of the day. Individuals are free to associate or disassociate themselves from either party whenever they want. So the Democratic party is allowed to have superdelegates and closed primaries that require people to register months in advance. And the Republican party is allowed to use arcane rules that give greater influence to political insiders rather than average voters. The end result is a process that is less than democratic.
These are not good things, perhaps, but we should be careful to support the appropriate remedy. If we dislike the nominating process for the two main political parties, the goal should not be to have the government dictate new rules for these parties. Instead, our solution should be to look toward other parties that may have a more inclusive and transparent process–perhaps the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, depending on your sensibilities.
There are many reasons to prefer this competitive solution to a regulatory one. First, we have to acknowledge that the two major parties are currently in power in every state in the US and in the federal government. Thus, unless it was done via referendum, the new rules for political parties, would be written by the parties themselves. It goes without saying that this is unlikely to produce a good outcome. Just as we do not think Goldman Sachs should write new financial regulations, we shouldn’t want Democrats and Republicans to be charged with making political party regulations.
Second, we should acknowledge that one reason the nominating process is as convoluted as it is currently, is that political parties want to ensure they can’t be co-opted by outsiders. While this is undemocratic in a sense, we can also see how it could be desirable. A popular suggested reform for the primary system is that of open primaries, which would allow any registered voter tovote in any party’s primary election. In the current campaign, this would have the likely result of benefiting the insurgent candidates in the major two political parties. But such a rule would presumably also be applied to smaller third-parties. This in turn means that third-parties, which have a relatively small voting base, could be strategically targeted by outside parties. So Republicans irritated by a Trump presidency would set their sights on taking over the Libertarian process (and would likely succeed, given greater numbers and financial resources), and Democrats depressed by a Bernie Sanders victory, could try to co-opt another third-party. If we allow the government to control the nominating process for political parties, it’s possible that we end up at a place where we have even fewer alternatives than we do now. 
Instead, we should prefer the solutions that we can control. If you don’t like how the Democratic party has treated Bernie Sanders, vote for the Green or the Libertarian in the general election. If you don’t like it when the RNC inevitably tries to prevent Trump from getting the nomination, then they should be punished in the general election too. It’s not throwing your vote away; it’s expressing your discontent in the only way* the political parties care about.
We’ll have to wait and see how the final Democratic and Republican nominations are to say for sure. But chances are high that the best option for most of us–whether progressive, libertarian, or just generally disappointed–will be to Vote for Anyone Else.
*Technically, I’m sure large political donations could do the trick as well. But unless you have an incredible amount of money, this probably isn’t in the cards.

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