This is No Way to Choose a President

It’s occasionally important to remember that as we write about the twists and turns of presidential campaign politics, we are in fact talking about the process that selects the person who will have control of the nuclear launch codes and veto power over our country’s legislative system.

In that context, watching the near-craziness of the electoral process within either party is maddening. On the Republican side is the prospect of a brokered convention, and a process in which local backroom deal-making can theoretically make or break whether men as different and crazy as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump become the GOP nominee. Wheeling and dealing in Michigan apparently gave Trump and Kasich key control of power players in Michigan, even as Cruz used local insider power plays to win every delegate in Colorado. The battle between Cruz and Trump will likely come down not to the will of the voters, but an insiders’ backroom brawl.

On the Democratic side two consecutive non-incumbent presidential battles will have in theory been decided again not necessarily by the will of the voters, but by the will of a few hundred high-level party insiders. While it is true that in 2008 superdelegates bowed to the will of the voters in selecting Barack Obama, it was no sure thing. Nor is it at all certain that were Bernie Sanders to receive a sudden wave of support and win a majority of votes or pledged delegates nationwide, that the superdelegates would actually fall in line. Meanwhile, delegates in yet another state (Wyoming) were just decided by an intrinsically exclusionary and painful caucus process that saw Sanders take 56% of the few votes cast–but due to the quirks of proportional allocation, the end delegate result is a 7-7 tie.

This is no way to elect the leader of the free world.

America’s winner-take-all electoral system inherently leads to a two-party duopoly, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. But if our governmental fates are going to be decided by the election systems of two political parties, it’s crucial that those parties and systems be as transparent and democratic as possible. That is far from the case today.

The very first step should be to convert caucuses to elections, and to either eliminate the superdelegates or simply make them bound to that state’s winner. These changes would be zero sum to the establishment and to populist outsiders: outsiders tend to do well in caucuses, while insiders love the superdelegate system. Both should be eliminated.

Meanwhile, party bylaws should prevent the gamesmanship of delegate selection by candidates, ensuring that if a candidate actually wins a state’s delegates, that candidate is guaranteed to actually receive those delegates.

If we must have delegates and proportional seating, proportional delegate allocation should actually be truly proportional. To wit, if a candidate wins an election by even 2 percentage points, that victory should be reflected in the actual delegate count. If that means a process with many more delegates voting, then so be it. Logistical inconvenience at a convention hall shouldn’t trump the basics of democracy.

Finally, there should be some thought given to how situations are handled in which no candidate receives an absolute majority of delegates. While it makes sense from various perspectives that a second ballot could dethrone a frontrunner with 49% of the delegate count in favor of someone with 25% of the count or even someone who hadn’t run for election at all, it’s a deeply uncomfortable prospect.

It should be beyond clear at this point that both of our political parties’ presidential election systems are broken (to say nothing of the electoral college itself.) It’s long past time to make them more transparent and accountable.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.