5 Reasons the Presidential Primary System Is in Need of Reform

Subject: A voter approaching an election polling place station during a United States election.
Subject: A voter approaching an election polling place station during a United States election.

Co-authored by Chance Strickland, Political Hobbyist & Educator in Waiting

Every four years we see the same song and dance: a diverse mix of party elders, rising stars and professional agitators competing for their party's nomination to the highest political office our nation has to offer. And so begins a bizarre series of rituals that, in spite of quadrennial gripes from a few pundits and shared Facebook posts, we seem to accept as an engrained and sacred part of the democratic process.

But the presidential primary system as it exists today is a surprisingly new phenomenon, and it is hardly unreasonable to believe that it can and should be overhauled. Below are just a few reasons why that's exactly what needs to be done.

1. State-by-state discrepancies make the primary process imbalanced
Most states and territories hold primaries, which are organized and paid for by their respective state governments. The remaining states and territories opt for caucuses and party nominating conventions, where complicated rules and long processes mean voter turnout is often much lighter than in primaries. Some contests are open to all voters regardless of political affiliation, while others are solely intended for pledged party members. Such wide variation among states means that all votes are not created equal. Issues of accessibility and voter impact at the ballot box are directly contingent upon the rules that govern each state's primary process.

2. Delegate allocation is confusing -- and undemocratic
The process by which delegates are allocated also varies by state and by party. On the Republican side, each state is granted leeway in determining how delegates are assigned. Many states allocate delegates on a winner-take-all or winner-take-most basis, a process that effectively undermines individual votes. In Texas, for example, the state party only awards delegates to candidates who meet a 20 percent threshold of the popular vote, which essentially rendered meaningless the over 500,000 votes (roughly 18 percent) cast for Rubio. On the Democratic side, candidates must acquire at least 15 percent of the state's popular vote in order to accrue pledged delegates, a policy that did not bode well for Clinton supporters in Vermont where she received just shy of 14 percent.

For Kasich supporters in Georgia (where he fell far short of the 20 percent threshold), they would have been just as well writing in Paul Coverdell, who despite his postmortem conditions will receive the same number of Georgian delegates as Kasich come July. Meanwhile, Donald Trump will arrive in Cleveland with about 43 percent of the pledged delegates awarded through March, despite only receiving 35 percent of the votes cast in that same time.

3. Closed primaries and caucuses discourage broad participation
On this point, there are clearly pros and cons to restricting primary participation to party members. As Rush Limbaugh's "Operation Chaos" illustrated in 2008, open primaries can persuade members of another party to participate with the goal of disrupting the process rather than selecting a nominee on his or her merits. In the 2016 Michigan primary, some pundits prognosticated that many of Hillary Clinton's supporters may have crossed over to vote against Donald Trump. So clearly, political parties have a vested interest in keeping primaries closed to discourage agitation and maintain party loyalty.

Yet, should open primaries even be a question in a democratic contest? Shouldn't citizens, whose tax dollars fund primaries, be allowed to vote strategically in order to achieve a desired result? And why should only Democrats and Republicans have a say in deciding which candidates are most qualified to serve as commander in chief? By shutting out unaffiliated voters, states with closed primaries and caucuses see much lower participation, which is arguably worse for political parties whose ultimate success in the general election is based on high voter turnout.

4. Early states wield disproportionate amounts of power and do not reflect the broader electorate
The power of early states rests in their ability to create momentum for candidates. Yet the combined population of the first four primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- is a little more than 12 million people. That is less than one-third of the population of California alone, yet you don't see a lot of presidential hopefuls eating fried guava on a stick with voters in the suburbs of San Diego. That's because Californians don't vote until June 7, and in most recent cycles the parties have settled on nominees well before they get the chance to participate.

Further, the electorate in first states to vote hardly represent the diversity of the nation as a whole. According to the most recent census, 92.1 percent of Iowans identify as purely white. Compare that with the 36.3 percent nationwide who identify as anything other than white, and the discrepancy is glaring. In New Hampshire the gap is amazingly even wider, with an even 94 percent identifying as white and white alone.

5. Superdelegates are fundamentally undemocratic
Hilariously enough, the arguably undemocratic role of superdelegates -- who are tasked with casting their votes for a candidate of their choosing at party conventions -- only exist on the Democratic side. Despite the fact that their votes are not bound by the results of popular elections in their state, their votes weigh much more heavily than the votes of average citizens. While Bernie Sanders earned 15 pledged delegates to Hillary Clinton's nine in New Hampshire, six superdelegates have declared their support to Clinton, forcing an effective tie at the convention. If New Hampshire's two uncommitted superdelegates end up swinging into Clinton's camp, she will defeat Bernie Sanders on the floor despite losing the popular vote in that state by more than 20 percent.

While superdelegates are solely a byproduct of the DNC, Republicans have their own version of the "smoke-filled room": unbound delegates, or delegates who essentially become free agents if the candidate to whom they were bound suspends their campaign. And because there is no law barring unbound delegates from accepting bribes, they could theoretically sell their vote to the highest bidder on the convention floor.

All of this matters because the rules that govern presidential primaries serve the plutocrats and party elites, rather than the will of the people. Our current system fuels the 24-hour corporate media circus, forces (most) candidates into the pockets of special interests, disenfranchises voters, and perpetuates a two-part duopoly that undermines our democracy. Yet as long as the media and the two major parties stand to benefit from this process -- and the public is willing to play along -- we can continue to expect more of the same.