Democratizing Primary Elections in the USA

Will party primary reforms ever happen?

In the heat of the contests between the candidates within the Republic and Democratic Party primaries, media commentators and political party officials have been unable to see the public’s concerns over the processes in place within both parties. This is a real issue that is likely to come back to bite both parties, but not fix the problems.

Political conventions used to be far removed from voters. They were the source of criticism over deals made in smoke-filled rooms – which were real in the early-1900s.[1] Party reforms from the early 1900s sought to democratize the conventions by introducing more direct elections of candidates in primary elections. Over the decades, the push has been to empower the public through primaries over the wheeling and dealing of professional politicians and insiders on state and national convention floors and back room deals.

Voters have discovered in the 2016 primaries that the job is not done. Some primaries have elements of simply straw polls, such as the Democratic Party primary in Pennsylvania, with over 50 unplugged candidates sent to the convention. Republicans have been most upset over the selection of delegates who do not reflect the preferences indicated by divisions in the primary elections. The Democratic primaries have been most criticized for the so-called ‘super-delegates’ that gave Hillary Clinton a head start and sense of inevitability, and also closed primaries, which disenfranchise many Independent voters in many states, such as New York. 43 percent of American voters are not Republicans or Democrats, but Independents.[2]

Ironically, just as the parties are losing registered voters, and shrinking in front of our eyes, the party officials have become more influential. A shrinking Democratic Party electorate is determining the candidate, and marginalizing Independents.


Since the current processes privilege those who run the parties, why should they push their own demise? And the voters disenfranchised are left with four years until the next election, so how motivated will they be after the primaries are over. Moreover, voter disenchantment with candidates within both parties is likely to lead to more independents, who do not identify with either party, and who will be disenfranchised in the next primary elections.

So four years from now the US is likely to be in the same problematic and flawed process, if not an even less democratic process. So we need not ask why the nation that prides itself on being a model of democracy, has such a flawed system of elections. Commentators respond that everyone knows the rules in advance, and democratic primaries are what we do. Ergo, whatever we do must be democratic. Obviously, the rules of the game could be more democratic and transparent by better empowering the voters rather than the party politicians and politicos.

Senator Bernie Sanders, and others, such as Lawrence Lessig, were right in focusing on campaign finance reforms. But we need to add reform of primary elections to the agenda for enhancing democratic processes in the US.



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