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.

This is the United STATES of America: The Primaries are the Problem!

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential elections, the shock of Donald Trump’s surprising win has generated a flurry of initiatives to turn back the clock and rerun or overturn the election, such as Jill Stein’s failed attempt to recount the ballots in a number of key states. The most worrisome efforts – to me – have been calls to overturn the Electoral College. This worries me for two reasons. First, most critiques misunderstand the fundamental importance of the federal structure of the USA. Secondly, Electoral College reform is a red herring, since the focus should be on reforming the primaries for all political parties.

Regarding the Electoral College, the United States of America was not designed as a unitary direct democracy. We are not living in some People’s Republic of America. We have a federal structure that created institutions such as the structure of elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the Presidency that reinforced and maintained the significance of the States. It is the brilliance of these institutions that enabled the states to come together in a single united nation.

The Electoral College works to ensure that candidates for President are well advised to take into account all the states, and not only the most populous states, or for that matter, only the most populous urban areas and neglected rural and less populated areas of the country. It is true that candidates focus increasingly on the so-called ‘battle ground states’, where the vote count is expected to be closest, but all the states count at the end of the day. Direct elections, based only on the popular vote, could virtually disenfranchise many states. If you think many voters feel alienated by the results of the 2016 election, I would imagine many more alienated by direct popular votes that marginalize the voters in their states.

Take the 2016 election, for example, where Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote by 2,833,220 votes. However, she won California alone by more – by 4,446, 281 votes. So if you called the election by popular vote alone, California would have disenfranchised all those red states on the map of the USA. But it is not the state totals, so much as the way in which popular votes would focus all candidates on the major urban areas, and to dismiss the rest of the country. So the Electoral College is not antiquated by the progress of democracy, but brilliant in reinforcing the USA as a federal system designed to keep all the states feeling included. The legitimacy of our institutions, such as elections, is more important than the outcome of any one election.

Even if you should want to reform the Electoral College, it would take a constitutional amendment and be ridiculously irrelevant to the 2016 Presidential election. Ergo, some otherwise reasonable people have argued that electors should exercise their right not to vote for the candidate chosen by their state electorates. I have followed debate over the Electoral College for decades and it has been discussed time and again with the one most concerning issue being that the electors in many states are not legally bound to vote for the candidate that their state sent them to elect. Books* have been written about the potential of these now called ‘faithless electors’  upsetting the results of the popular vote in states, but the possibility has been largely ignored by the realization that this would be inconceivable, tantamount to an elector determining that their judgment is better than the judgment of the voters in his or her state. Voters do not vote for a slate of electors to exercise their personal judgment as a trustee.

Yet highly respected public intellectuals, like Lawrence Lessig, are arguing that electors should do just that. I suspect it is an ends justifies the means argument. In my opinion, this would be a far greater blow to the democratic process of the USA than any election result imaginable. If you worry about the US being divided now, I cannot imagine what the reaction would be to set of Electors choosing to take the election in their own hands. Arguments that the interference of a ‘foreign power’ justifies such an action, citing allegations that that Russians hacked the members of the DNC and RNC,  is ludicrous, as it is no more than a conspiracy theory before any evidence is provided. It does not take state of the art state sponsored cyber warfare to hack into John Pedesta’s email, since he was not cautious about his passwords etc. It also reflects the degree that those harmed by leaks routinely demonise the messengers, such as WikiLeaks, to deflect attention from the message. Did claims about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Clinton Foundation, or Russia throw the results? This is one of many debates flourishing in hindsight.

That said, the most important concern I have is that fishing for some constitutional fix to the 2016 election is a red herring. The real problem has been the dysfunctional primary elections orchestrated by all political parties. The most significant fact of this past election is that the major parties nominated candidates that had high unfavorablity ratings. Whichever candidate had won, many voters would have been upset. Could something be wrong with the ways in which the political parties choose their candidates for office? Yes, this is blindingly obvious.

There are many symptoms of this. The parties have been declining for at least the past two decades, while partisanship remains strong, such as in the degree people vote on the basis of their partisan identification. So a shrinking, less trusted, but increasingly powerful group of party members organize the primaries, and do so quite poorly. This is a problem, illustrated by the exposure of favoritism by the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, having her ‘finger on the scales’ (to put it in the kindest way possible) from the earliest days for Hillary Clinton, and against Bernie Sanders. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know about this tilting of the playing field. th-1

This led to her resignation, but did not prevent her re-election to the House, and it does not correct the fundamental problem with how to hold a fair and successful primary that recruits the best talent to enter the primaries.

Another key problem with the primaries, tied to the decline in party membership, is the failure of many states to let independent voters participate in the primaries. The contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was clearly shaped by which states did or did not allow independents to vote in the Democratic Primary, with Senator Sanders doing far better among independents, who were not registered Democrats.

All parties seem to have failed to organize primaries that encouraged the most talented individuals to put their hat in the ring and compete on a level playing field. The fact that the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, received about 1% of the vote, but remains the head of the Green Party, is an illustration of these problems continuing even in the marginal parties. What are they thinking?

It does not take a Constitutional Amendment to reform the primaries across the USA. And meaningful reform could be done within the coming four years. Instead of fighting the last election, and focusing on red herrings, and impossible reforms, those upset by the election process should focus on the primaries. The party primaries need to be reformed, and they can be reformed.

Have elementary schools stopped teaching basic civics? The number of pundits that seem not to have a clue about the federal structure of our nation, and the rationale behind the Electoral College, is amazing. But you don’t need to be a political scientist to see the real problems of our primary systems within each of our major parties. This should be the focus of reform.

[Postscript: It happened. Faithless Electors emerged.  Two electors were faithless to Donald Trump, and 5 were faithless to Hillary Clinton. This made no difference to the outcome, defied expectations of defections benefitting Hillary Clinton (no ‘revolt’ against Trump), and raised questions about trusting Electors in the future, as this was the first time since 1948 that there has been more than one faithless elector.**]

*For example, Robert M. Hardaway (1994), The Electoral College and the Constitution: The Case for Preserving Federalism.


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.



The Rules of Real World Games & the RNC

There is a debate underway in the Republican Party (the RNC) on the rules governing the primary elections and caucuses and their translation of their results into delegates to the party’s convention.

One side argues that the rules are unfair, in that the popular vote is not being mapped proportionately into the delegate selection process, which is biased in favor of one or another candidate. The other side argues that the rules were set months ago, and that everyone knew the rules of the game, so criticizing the rules is simply a reflection of candidates not being prepared to compete under the existing rules.

So many pundits and party officials seem to buy into the ‘rules were set and known’ camp, that I must protest. Come on.

Think about our economy. Imagine someone arguing that income inequalities are unfair, and others arguing that everyone knew the rules of the game since they could read, so you shouldn’t whine about the outcome. The poor might not have known the rules, or were not prepared to compete under the rules, but maybe the rules advantage the more well to do. Whatever the reason, this camp argues that we can’t question, much less change the rules.

Well, in the real world, as opposed to games for entertainment, we do change the rules of the game. This is a basic difference between the real world and play. And in play, if the rules of the game are unfair, people stop playing the game. In the real world, people assess the outcomes of rules, and adjust them overtime to ensure they are fair.

In politics, in contrast to our economic system, the rules are always as much at issue as are the plays and strategies of the players. In fact, in politics, the most effective strategies are to change the rules of the game.

So it is ridiculous to argue that it is not acceptable to challenge the fairness or democratic quality of the rules underpinning delegate selection or any other set of rules governing elections. The GOP within particular states should defend their rules, and explain why they are fair. To say they are not open to contention is a way to avoid the charge. Just because the rules have been set does not mean they are inherently fair.

O! Heavens! Bernie is consistent? He has a big idea, and that is revolutionary!

Jason Horowitz’s has an article in today’s NYTs about Senator Bernie Sanders, entitled ‘Over Decades, Sanders Has Stayed on Message’. Staying on message is generally perceived to be a virtue in political campaigns, but somehow, in this election; Senator Sanders is frequently criticized for sticking to his message for too long, and across too many issues. Consistency has become a liability, to his critics, as if conservatives would be criticized for being too consistent about the risks of big government.

From my perspective, the virtue of the Sander’s message is that it emanates from, clarifies, and extends one big idea. He has a really big idea about the unfair and highly skewed distribution of wealth in the top one percent and this problem infects politics and issues across the board, most notably around campaign financing and influence. Our progressive tax system has failed to deal with the very top rung. Yes, he has spoken about this idea for decades, but it has been only in recent years, in the aftermath of economic problems, particularly the housing crisis, international trade issues, and failures of American foreign policy that his message has begun to reach, and resonate with, a growing number of American voters.

Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)
Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)

A colleague once complimented me (yes, this doesn’t happen often), who said a book of mine was anchored in one idea. He went on to explain that he thought a book either had one idea, or none. Maybe this was faint praise, but I have thought about this often and I think it not only applies to books, but also to our presidential primary campaigns.

In my opinion, Bernie Sanders does have one big idea – one that enables him to address many different issue areas in a coherent and consistent way. Most other candidates have strategies, such as following the party’s mainstream, or keeping a finger in the wind of their primary constituencies, to ensure that they have the right position on each issue, nuanced for the moment. However articulate, and however informed, on the legislative and administrative histories of these issues, most candidates reflect a proverbial ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy on an issue-by-issue basis. They have focus groups, polls, and advisors on many issues, leading to many positions across the issues, not all that consistent. This is because they don’t have a big idea. For example, adhering to one of the major parties or administrations, whether President Obama’s or President Reagan’s, is not a big idea, since these histories are so packed with examples and counter-examples across the issues.

Horowitz was convincing in saying that this consistency is one explanation for the greater authenticity and trust attributed to Sanders, quoting Tad Devine, a Sander’s strategist, who defended sticking to the same message (I would say ‘idea’), by noting that this enhanced his credibility, “precisely because his speeches never seemed cooked up for the occasion”. Yes indeed, but I would add that it also reflects the fact that his messages are anchored in a big idea, and that is truly revolutionary at this time in American politics.


Jason Horowitz article: