America’s method for choosing presidential nominees has its strengths, but it also suffers from weaknesses. Liam Glen writes on possibilities to reform the primary system.
The Iowa Caucus may be over six months away, but the Democratic debates mark the formal beginning of the 2020 primary season. Each party will determine its nominee for the upcoming presidential election, though President Donald Trump is not expected to face serious competition on the Republican side.
In each state, candidates will compete in a series of statewide primaries and caucuses to decide whose delegates will go to the party’s national convention. Usually, the field narrows down to a single candidate by that point, but the possibility of a contested convention always looms over the race.
As this process goes on, people inevitably start to raise questions about it. It is a complicated system, born out of America’s complicated political history. No other country anything exactly like it. Predictably, it has its share of flaws.
Giving a Voice to the Masses
Non-Americas are often alarmed by how the process is controlled by average voters rather than party elites. In many states, one can even vote in a primary without being a registered member of the party.
This all seems terribly chaotic. In 2016, the openness of the process led to deep divisions within both the Democratic and Republican Parties. Surely, party leaders deserve more of a say over their own nominating process.
That may be the norm in many countries, but the current primary system is important because of the United States’ enduring two-party system. In the general election, voters have little variety. The next president will be either a Democrat or a Republican. Primaries at least give them a chance to decide which Democrat and which Republican.
For a cautionary example of what happens when the parties operate independently of the masses, just look at Britain. The process for choosing the Conservative and Labour Party leaders involves only the parties’ parliamentary representatives and a relatively small electorate of ideologically committed, dues-paying members.
As a result, party leaders Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have maintained their positions despite extraordinary unpopularity among the general public. Meanwhile, the man who until recently was favorited to be May’s successor, Boris Johnson, has a comparatively high net approval rating of negative 16 percent.
The most obvious solution would be to reform America’s general election system so that parties besides the big two can compete. But that type of change comes very slowly in the United States. After all, this is a country that still cannot agree on what to do with the Electoral College.
Primaries are an imperfect solution, but they are the best one available. They are also more receptacle to reform. In 2018, the Democrats reduced the power of unelected superdelegates after to their controversial role in the 2016 primaries.
There is a myriad of other reforms that could improve the process. More states can adopt open primaries so that independent voters can have a voice. They can replace the awkward, inaccessible caucus system with more straightforward primary ballots. They can assign delegates proportionately so that the results better reflect the voters’ decisions.
The biggest flaw in the primary system, however, is built into its very nature – the geographic inequality. Candidates invest massive resources into winning New Hampshire and Iowa, the first two states, while giving little-to-no thought to latter contests like Nebraska or Oregon.
The skewed focus on early states gives some groups disproportionate power. Iowa’s strong agricultural sector is one of the reasons why the problematic ethanol industry retains support among most presidential candidates. And I would not be the first to point out that Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically quite a bit whiter than the rest of the country.
The most egalitarian alternative would be for each state to hold their ballots at the same time. We can even do away with the outdated system of delegates and conventions and simply declare that whatever candidate gets the most votes is the winner.
Of course, this would be a major shake-up. One obvious issue is that primaries tend to have a fractured field, so it is unlikely that any single candidate would win a majority. There are plenty of voting methods that can get around this. But we must again remember that this is America. People are slow to accept major changes to election systems.
Of other proposed reforms, one of the most promising is a rotating system. Iowa may be the first state to vote this year, but next election cycle the honor will go to another state, like Oregon, California, or even West Virginia. If the system is random, no state would have a permanently entrenched unfair advantage.
Of course, opposition still exists. Entitled Iowan politicos always get up in arms when someone questions their disproportionate power. But reform also has quite a bit of common-sense appeals to anyone who is not a resident of one of the early states.
Not many people spend their time thinking about voting systems, let alone for primary elections. But voting systems determine which politicians get to enter office and make decisions that affect everyone.
While the consequences may not be immediately noticeable, giving any person or group a disproportionately large or small amount of power in the electoral process is not a pathway to good governance.
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