Want a Revolution? Join a Party

Here in Pennsylvania, you cannot participate in the primaries unless you are registered as either a Democrat or Republican, and this provides an incentive for people to ‘join’ a party even if they’d really rather not. In recent years, the percentage of independents on the voting rolls has been climbing. Naturally, with a contested primary in both parties approaching on April 26th, party switching is currently high. In fact, it’s at an historic high, with about half of switchers joining up for the GOP, a third changing to get a chance to choose between Clinton and Sanders, and the rest dropping a major party to become unaffiliated or signing up with a minor party.

So, in the short term, the movement is away from being independent, but that’s an artificial and temporary boost that simply wouldn’t happen if this state held open primaries. People are joining the two major parties just so they can have a say in who will be our next president. The longer term trend has been against party affiliation, and this will almost definitely be the trend going forward, once these primaries have concluded.

“What you’re seeing in those (suburban Philadelphia) counties is very much in line with what you’re seeing nationally,” said Chris Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion. “Polls show voters are more likely than at any time in modern history to not want to affiliate themselves with either of the two major political parties.”

Now, you might be interested in Pennsylvania’s primary system because you want to know how it might advantage or disadvantage the candidates. For example, it hurts Bernie Sanders that the deadline for changing parties has passed because he does very well with independents and, if they haven’t already registered as Democrats, they can’t vote for him. I’ve met several young adults who are in this situation, and they’re not happy about it. They’re ‘Feeling the Bern,’ but they’re also lost votes.

This is not why I am bringing up this topic, however. I want to talk about a different disconnect between the system as it exists and the people’s expectations for how things ought to be in a sensible and fair world.

What people don’t really get is the idea of delegating their decision-making to someone else. But that’s what Pennsylvania voters really do, to a very large degree:

The arcane rules governing the [Republican] nominating process mean that in Pennsylvania, a populous state that all three remaining candidates are targeting, the winner will automatically receive only 14 of the state’s 71 total delegates. The other delegates — 54 of whom are elected on the primary ballot in congressional districts, plus three RNC members — will be unbound.

“Even if you stood up and said, ‘I’m for Governor John Kasich’ and your district duly elected you based on your word, you can go to the convention and say, ‘Nope, I changed my mind,’ ” [Ed] Brookover [a senior adviser to Trump] said.

Phil English, a past delegate from Pennsylvania and a former congressman, is among the 162 Republicans running to become delegates. He said he considers himself “a free agent” and is open to nominating someone not currently campaigning, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

“I intend to listen to people in my community, look at how they vote in the beauty contest, and then make my own assessment of what would be the strongest ticket for the Republican Party,” English said.

Is there really anything wrong with this?

I am sure it strikes most people as grossly unfair, if not outright corrupt. How could their vote not be binding? What’s the point of even voting?

And, in a country where people are increasingly disassociating themselves from party politics, it seems less sensible and just than ever for party insiders to have this kind of control and power over who will stand for the presidency.

But delegates are really just like our elected representatives in Congress. Our senators and congressmen are elected by us, but we don’t control their votes once they get to Washington DC. They might promise to vote against a free trade agreement and then be persuaded to support it once they have the opportunity to sit in hearings, question witnesses, introduce and pass amendments that satisfy their concerns, or just get corrupted by big money and lobbyists. We vote for people to represent us, and if we don’t like how we’re represented, we get to vote against them when they stand for reelection. That’s our system.

Delegates to the party conventions are also our representatives, and in states like Pennsylvania, we elect them directly. They may be pledged to vote for Trump or they may not be pledged to anyone. When they get to the convention, some of them will be designated by the whole state delegation to serve on committees where they will craft the platform and set forth the rules that will govern the nomination. We’re electing these people to do these jobs for us, and there’s nothing wrong with that. At least in theory, the only people voting for these delegates will be members of either the Republican or the Democratic Party, and they have a right to expect that members of their party will craft the platform, not independents who have no commitment or skin in the game.

This is the way the system works, but it’s not how people think the system works, nor is it how they think it ought to work. But maybe it’s precisely how it ought to work.

If people realized that they’re really electing members of their community to represent their interests at a party convention, then maybe there would be some vetting of the delegates and some real competition and debate about who will be sent to serve. If people realized that you ought to belong to a party if you hope to have a say in who that party nominates, maybe they would get involved in local politics rather than treating our elections as a spectator sport.

What irks people, I think, is how the two-party system limits our choices. Nobody really complains when Green Party members pick their nominee without their say, but it makes them angry to think that the Democratic or Republican Party might do the exact same thing. Of course, in a lot of states, the parties let non-members vote, which muddies the waters and delegitimizes the idea that these are political parties at all.

Finally, think about how these contests are covered by the media. They don’t explain the system very well at all, although I think they’re getting a little better with each new presidential cycle. Think about what it means that Trump can win every delegate in Florida by getting one more vote than the guy in second place, but can get fewer delegates than Cruz in Louisiana despite getting more votes. Why did they split votes proprotionately in one state, give a big bonus for winning in another, make another winner-take-all, and have another bind only 14 of the 71 available delegates? There absolutely no sense of one-person one-vote in that. But people think their vote should be treated that way.

What people ought to think is that their decision is less about which candidate they support than which member of their community they trust to represent them at the convention. What they ought to be taught by the media is how they can influence who will be their representative at the convention. Is their time best spent knocking doors, casting a vote on primary or caucus day, or in showing up at their county convention to cast a vote there?

Ideally, we’d have a system where numerous parties could field viable and well-funded candidates, and only party members would have a say in who runs on their party’s ticket. That will never be the case, though, because of our first-past-the-post plurality-wins system. Instead, what we have is a system that is more of a trial by fire than a democratic process.

And within the system we have, which can be tweaked but not fundamentally changed, wouldn’t it be better if people understood its mechanisms and didn’t have false expectations about how it works or how it should work?

In a general election, the principle of one-person one-vote is vitally important, but that principle doesn’t apply to parties picking their nominees, nor should it. If you want to be an independent, you really shouldn’t complain about what some party you don’t even belong to wants to do. If you want to have a real say, you should do the things that will give you some say, not just sit around bitching that people win nominations in a way that displeases you.

It’s not corrupt that committed party members tend to be the people who run to be delegates, nor that committed party members have a preference for candidates who support their party, work to make it stronger, and generally share its priorities and goals.

If you want a revolution, you have to do it on the ground within the party system, and you have to know how it works.

But don’t feel too badly, even Donald Trump is just figuring out that you don’t win a nomination just by getting the most votes.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.