How to Fix Our Broken Primary System in Five Easy Steps

The unexpected twists and turns of the 2016 presidential election have exposed interesting fault lines within both the Democratic and Republican coalitions. But they have also revealed something even more uncomfortable: that our system of picking presidential candidates is inadequate, lacks transparency and accountability, and faces a fundamental legitimacy problem. Clinton and Sanders have spent media cycles arguing over which states “mattered” more than others based in part on their election systems, and the fate of dozens of delegates may have been decided by whether a state held an election or a caucus, and whether that election was an open or closed primary. In both 2008 and 2016 Democratic candidates have publicly started to rely on a strategy of overturning the actual will of the voters by persuading the party mandarins who make up the party’s so-called “superdelegate” vote. Meanwhile on the Republican side Ted Cruz’ campaign is explicitly attempting to take delegates from Donald Trump at various nominating conventions and caucuses that in essence are controlled by state and local party insiders, in spite of the will of the actual voters in those states and districts. The Republican Party is also faced with the possibility of a convention in which a frontrunner with even 49% of the delegates may not actually become the nominee. On both sides, the momentum of the race has often depended on the vagaries of which states (and their demographics) happen to come first, and in succession to others. It’s a total mess, and it’s no way to choose a president.

Unlike so many problems in American political life, however, this issue has a number of simple fixes. Here are five of them:

1) Eliminate caucuses. The caucus system is an artifact of simpler times and smaller populations: communities would come together on a single day to argue, take sides and persuade one another about their preferred candidates in a process that would make Norman Rockwell proud. For better or worse, however, life has changed significantly and made the caucus into an anachronism that disenfranchises large numbers of voters and allows for significant manipulation by state and local machine politics. Most people simply lack the time or energy to spend several hours on a single given day standing in a long line only to be counted in a room, re-counted, then listen to loudmouths shout insults about each candidate, then re-counted again, etc. Most people simply don’t bother, and that’s bad for democracy. Moreover, the process allows for shenanigans like opening and closing locations early, subtle and overt manipulation by party officials running the process, and even large-scale unfairnesses like certain employers or unions giving time off and direction to their workers to vote that others do not, thereby significantly affecting a process that should by rights be open to all. Caucuses do tend to give an advantage to outsider non-establishment candidates like Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016, but there are other way to compensate for institutional advantages that do not disenfranchise large numbers of voters. State parties should simply do away with them in favor of traditional elections.

2) Mandate semi-open primaries. Much to dismay of party officials and campaign managers like me on both sides of the aisle, the reality is that younger and more populist voters are increasingly choosing not to register with political parties. One could argue that this reflects a troubling lack of civic engagement, but the reality is that political parties are supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. If people increasingly don’t want to register with the parties, then the parties need to do more to convince voters that they’re worth registering with. Given the failure of elites in American life at all levels and the record levels of distrust in nearly every major institution in American life, it’s not at all surprising that the Democratic and Republican party institutions are suffering from public disengagement. Both parties–but especially the Democratic Party–have an obligation to listen to and serve the voters who have felt most ill-served by the democratic process. There are some who argue that semi-open primaries leave room for tinkering by ideological opponents, but there has never really been a proven example of this happening in a results-altering way. It’s possible to argue for an open primary system in which voters are allowed to register with the party on-site, but that presumes a state that allows same-day voter registration. Democratic primary processes should not be dependent on processes designed by Republican state officials to be disenfranchising. It’s far simpler to simply have every state mandate an open primary system–and if a majority of young people and unaffiliated voters choose to vote regularly in their favored party’s primaries and feel well-served by the results, then that should redound to the benefit that party over time–and to the voters.

3) Rotate the order of primary states for geographic and demographic diversity. The first-in-the-nation status of Iowa and New Hampshire has long been a subject of discontent among both partisans generally and residents of other states: Iowa and New Hampshire are much smaller and whiter than American at large and are not necessarily representative of the American public, but nevertheless have an outsize influence on money and momentum in presidential primaries. Further, the primary process in 2016 allowed for a so-called SEC primary in which both Trump and Clinton racked up big momentum with wins in the most demographically and ideologically unusual region of the country, creating the impression that their delegate leads were virtually unassailable moving forward. As candidate support becomes increasingly a function of divided demographic cross-sections, our system of choosing a president should not depend on the vagaries of which states happen to come first in the process. Rather, the parties should dethrone Iowa and New Hampshire as first in the nation, select a rotating order of states with small media markets, and prevent situations in which major early primary dates are concentrated in specific regions.

4) Make “super-delegates” pledged to their state’s election results. The subject of unpledged delegates is a major focal point of conspiracy theories and perceived illegitimacy in both parties, but especially in the Democratic Party where so-called “superdelegates” make up an outsize portion of the delegate total. There is a good argument for their inclusion, if for no other reason than as a reward to party activists who have put in countless unpaid hours to support their political party and deserve a trip to the convention and the ability to vote (slots for superdelegate elected officials allow regular local party and campaign activists to become regular delegates.) But there is very little legitimate argument for allowing unpledged delegates to potentially alter the will of the actual voters. So far that has not yet happened in modern electoral history, but the fact that it has been a very real possibility and campaign strategy in 2008 and 2016 is a serious problem. Every single voting delegate should be bound to an actual democratic process–and if it turns out that a party’s voters do nominate someone that party officials deem less than ideal or electable, then that should be a lesson to the party’s officials that they are out of step with their own electorate and make the necessary changes, rather than disenfranchise their own voters at a convention.

5) Allow candidate campaigns to select their pledged delegates. One troubling feature of the Republican primary election has been the “stealing” of Trump delegates by either literally switching out Trump delegates for those of other candidates, or simply placing delegates who are bound to vote for Trump on the 1st ballot, but will immediately abandon him on a second ballot even though the will of the voters in those states and districts was clear. That is a fundamental insult to the democratic process, and Trump is well within his rights to call it rigged. A system in which the process overturns the actual will of the voters, regardless of how transparent or well-known in advance, is by definition rigged. In order to prevent this from happening in the future, candidate campaigns should have far more say in who their delegates actually are so that local party officials cannot sway the process against the will of their own voters.

These five fixes won’t solve every problem with the nominating process, but they would go a long way toward improving the process, rendering it more accountable and accessible, and improving Americans’ trust in how our presidents are chosen.

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.