Protest Anything, but Reform the US Primaries

The protests following the 2016 Presidential Election express the frustration of many with the outcome, and various decisions in the early weeks of the new administration. But I worry that the electorate might forget the central role that the broken primary systems played in the election. The primaries of both parties (all parties) failed to attract the best candidates. And they have failed to gain legitimacy for the candidates selected. The problems are best illustrated by the such symptoms as not allowing Independent voters to participate in many primaries, and party officials putting their finger on the scales to favor insider candidates, the famous case of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Bernie Sanders Rally MSU
Bernie Sanders Rally MSU

Over the last several decades, the vitality and legitimacy of the political parties have declined, while the significance of the parties has remained great. They are the major king and queen makers of the primary process. Ironically, as people desert the parties, the central committees of the parties become even more powerful as they are more removed from accountability to their dwindling rank and file.

If the Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate, with more favorable ratings among the voters, the outcome might have been different. If the Republicans had been able to vet candidates in ways that avoided a 16-candidate debate, with more left off the debate stage, then the party might have appointed a candidate with broader support within and beyond the party. For that matter, if the Green Party had some contests for its party leadership, it could well play a more meaningful role in the election and its aftermath.

So it is frustrating to believe that it is the primaries that need to be fixed, and soon, but that everyone is focused on expressing their dissatisfaction with the candidates. Focus on the process that got us here, not the personalities. Four years is a short time. Do something that will matter in the next two and four years. Fix the broken primaries.

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.



Opportunities for CNN and Candidates in the First Democratic Party Debate

Five candidates are preparing for the CNN debate to be held in Las Vegas on 13 October 2015: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but also Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. There are two likely outcomes.

The first is an opportunity to actually debate the issues. The previous Fox and CNN debates failed to engage the candidates in a genuine debate of the issues, perhaps as a consequence of the sheer number of candidates on stage. On Tuesday, with five candidates, there will be no excuse for not asking the candidates to debate key issues, yet that remains to be seen. [Tracy Westen and I have been writing about this shortcoming of the GOP debates.]

Secondly, I expect that this is a key opportunity for the lesser known candidates to gain greater visibility. Martin O’Malley, for example, could gain support for his candidacy by virtue of just being heard. Even though there are fewer candidates in the Democratic Party Primary, it is amazing how focused the media have been on the two frontrunners, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Even Joe Biden, yet to decide on his candidacy, has received tremendous coverage. The other three candidates have received very little indeed. For example, the Sunday NYT (11 October 2015) prepares readers for the coming debate by discussing the debating skills of Bernie and Hillary, but not one column inch on O’Malley, Webb, or Chafee. This is one more illustration of the limitations of the mass media in elections. More use needs to be made of the Internet, Web and social media to cover a wider range of issues and candidates.


It might well be that the three lesser knowns will have the most to win in this CNN debate, as this stage will give them the best opportunity to-date to make their case as credible alternatives to the two front-runners. My prediction is that Martin O’Malley will be the biggest winner of Tuesday’s CNN debate, but the most important outcome should be the airing of candidate positions on key issues. This is the responsibility of the moderators at CNN.