America’s primary system is a baffling mess. Let’s fix it. – The Week Magazine

8 months ago Comments Off on America’s primary system is a baffling mess. Let’s fix it. – The Week Magazine

On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders won a blowout victory in the New Hampshire primary, beating Hillary Clinton by 22 points. But because of the way the primary rules are set up, Clinton actually took more New Hampshire delegates than Sanders did.

This took some Sanders supporters by surprise, and now they’re getting a crash course in primary “superdelegates.” This refers to the fact that the Democrats’ primary system grants about 15 percent of delegates, or 713 out of the 4,764 total, to party grandees who can vote for whoever they want. And since Clinton is far, far more powerful within the party, she has already gotten endorsements from 362 superdelegates, giving her an overall lead of 394 to 42.

This ridiculously unfair process is only one of many broken aspects of the parties’ rattletrap primary system. Let 2016 be the last time the nation has to put up with this garbage. (I’ll use examples from the Democratic Party below, but a similar case can be made for Republicans.)

First, just as a matter of procedural justice, the fact that it’s theoretically possible for party elites to coronate a nominee who loses a two-candidate race by that big of a margin is a moral travesty. Now, it’s unlikely that superdelegates will make Clinton the Democratic nominee if she loses the popular vote by a substantial margin (for fear that Sanders’ voters will refuse to support her),but the very existence of the superdelegates distorts the overall race, raising the hurdle for non-insider candidates and making it more likely they’ll give up before they even start.

That sense that the game is rigged is quite obviously raising considerable resentment among voters the party needs. Better to just let candidates compete on votes, and award victory on the merits without getting the party elites involved.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Iowa and New Hampshire are preposterously unrepresentative of the country as a whole, and they’re even further away from the Democratic Party. First, they’re both quite small, ranking as the 30th and 41st largest states respectively. The former is 92 percent white; the latter 94 percent — but the U.S. as a whole is only 77 percent. Meanwhile, a bare 40 percent of white people identify as Democrats, compared to 80 percent of blacks, 65 percent of Asians, and 56 percent of Hispanics. Put simply, two tiny, lily-white states are not a great place to begin a process which depends critically on non-white views. (This objection does not hold for the largely-white Republicans, of course.)

Third, it’s simply unfair to let any particular state always go first — and hence have a vastly disproportionate influence over the outcome. It’s nothing more than a silly, undemocratic tradition. Iowa and New Hampshire should count about as much as any other similarly sized state.

Finally, it takes forever. Though the primaries aren’t the only thing responsible for America’s ridiculously prolonged electoral process, they’re a big part of it. There’s no reason the presidential election should start immediately after the preceding midterms; shortening the primary process would go quite a ways towards that end.

So, what to replace it with? Here’s a napkin sketch for a better system. Divide the states into four roughly equal, roughly contiguous groups, making sure to include some reasonably diverse locations in each one. Starting the second Saturday in June, the four groups will take turns holding their primaries every two weeks. Delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis for everyone who gets more than 10 percent support. By the end of July, the process will be wrapped up. If we were feeling really fancy, we could add in an instant-runoff system to better represent voter preferences and prevent ties.

Then, during the next cycle, the group order will be switched so the last group goes first, the first group goes second, and so on. Every fourth election, each region would get the chance to go first, and get the corresponding lavish candidate attention.

One might argue that we might as well roll up the entire primary into one big election, but with such a large country, it makes sense to allow the process to play out over a couple months, so ideas have a chance to percolate and idiosyncratic issues get a hearing. If outsider candidates like Sanders had to compete everywhere at once, they would have vanishingly little chance.

At any rate, one could debate various improvements all day. But as with the Electoral College, it is completely beyond question that the existing system is a baffling mess. Let’s fix it.

America’s primary system is a baffling mess. Let’s fix it. – The Week Magazine