Can the primary nomination system be fixed?

posted at 8:01 am on March 16, 2016 by Jazz Shaw

There are few things that all three sides can agree on this election (and by “three sides” I mean Democrats, Trump supporters and #NeverTrump, since we don’t have one Republican Party anymore) but the one issue where there is consensus is the fact that the primary system and how we operate our national party conventions is a big old pile of doggy doo. Everyone from the presidential candidates all the way down the line to county party officials deep in the hollers of Appalachia seem to seek ways to play the system to their own advantage. And because of the way we structure our rules (and more importantly, edit them) they’re generally pretty darned successful at it. The states take their turns at running either primaries or caucuses in bewildering fashion, producing results which always hold the potential to please nobody. The conventions have a set of rules so readily modified at the 11th hour that they may as well be decided by a game of quidditch between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw.

So is there actually anything which could be done? Ramesh Ponnuru has a few suggestions over at Bloomberg, at least in terms of winding up with a clear winner who has majority support.

Different rules, as Francis Barry has written, could make it more likely that in the future party nominations will go to candidates with majority support. States could, for example, hold runoff elections between the top two candidates in a primary. Or they could hold “instant runoffs.” Take a race with three candidates. Voters could rank those candidates. If none of them got 51 percent of voters to say he was their first choice, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Then his voters would be reallocated to their second-choice candidate. The winner would then be preferred by the majority.

It’s not too late to apply some version of this idea to the choice of a Republican nominee. Republicans could change the rules of their convention to permit some kind of preferential ballot. The rule change would have to be proposed in advance, so that members of the convention’s rules committee have time to consider it before voting on it during the week before all the delegates arrive in Cleveland. Then, if it passes the committee, a majority of delegates would have to vote for it too.

When Ramesh says “fair” in this context, what he’s clearly talking about is the most fair sounding way to take the nomination away from Trump if he arrives with a plurality of delegates while still trying not to anger his voters too much. Good luck with that.

Some of these suggestions are, at least to my thinking, far too problematic to consider, even if you could find a way to implement them. Having delegates cast a “second choice” on the first ballot at the GOP convention is a non-starter because they are (mostly) bound to the candidate chosen by the voters in the primary or caucus. No voter authorized them to go all freestyle on a “second choice.” And again, this is nothing more than a fairly transparent way for the establishment lane, during this single election year, to take the nomination away from Trump in a plurality situation. That’s the only “problem” it solves.

But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, there may be some bits of Ramesh’s plan which could be salvaged. Before we can identify those, we need to settle on the main problems we’re actually trying to fix. Here’s a short summary:

  1. We have a constantly shifting, inconsistent set of rules governing how we pick nominees
  2. The order in which the states votes is chaotic
  3. The RNC has very little control over the states, but they do have some
  4. The question of pluralities vs majorities and the fact that some people don’t get to vote

The reason for item number one above (reflected in number 3) is that the states are all free range in terms of how they structure their primaries or caucuses. It’s a natural instinct among conservatives to push for state’s rights rather than having a top down approach, so that’s understandable. And I’m not saying the RNC should mandate it to the states, but there might be a few things we could still do. We experienced an unpleasant period in the last couple elections where the states were rushing to go first, threatening to start the election before Christmas. The RNC stopped that by imposing rules which would reduce or eliminate the delegates for states which jumped the starting line. Rewards were offered to those who got the process back on track smoothly and delivered wins for the party. A similar carrot and stick approach could be used to address other problems.

So what are the things we might be able to correct? First and foremost, let’s do away with the caucuses. Don’t award delegates to any state that runs a caucus. They’re undemocratic, confusing, and reduce the number of people who can (or are willing to) vote. Arguments about caucuses giving smaller states or less well funded candidates more of a voice should be readily shut down. Any voter who is available to show up at a caucus can stop by a primary polling center and cast a vote. Have all of the states be primaries and perhaps consider whether they should all be winner take all or proportional. Pick a method and stick with it.

Next, let’s get some clear winners of the primaries. Here’s where we might be able to use some of the strategy suggested by Ramesh. In a state primary where the rules are announced well in advance (unlike the national convention, which we’ll get to in a moment) you could either make provisions for a runoff election (if the party can afford it) or limit the delegates to the top two finishers at most. I guess you could consider a “list your second choice” option on the ballot but that just sounds weird. Again, the states have to make these rules on their own, but the RNC could provide incentives to do so and, more importantly, the voters could pressure the state parties to make improvements.

Finally, let’s straighten out the convention system. The process is currently structured to produce a winner absolutely chosen by the voters only if somebody has a majority across the board on the first ballot. That’s fine, obviously, assuming you have a dominating frontrunner. But if you’re going to deal with pluralities frequently in the future, we need to do something to make the waters less muddy. I’m not sure how to structure it yet, but there needs to be some recourse to allow the voters to have the final say and not a group of party bosses.

And if we’re going to fix the GOP convention, here’s the one big thing we could do right away. DO NOT HAVE THE RULES COMMITTEE MEET BEFORE THE CONVENTION. Let the rules be known when we START the race and stick with them. Have the committee meet after the convention if any tuning is needed for the next cycle. If you change the rules this summer right before the convention to favor one candidate or another you can expect four more years of people calling to just burn it all down.


Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air