The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad way to pick a nominee

Primaries and caucuses allow only a small fraction of the electorate to influence the nomination, Ira Lacher writes. Is there a better way? -promoted by Laura Belin

Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary a few weeks ago, collecting 25.6 percent or 76,324 votes.

There were 276,385 New Hampshirites eligible to vote in the Democratic primary. Which means Sanders was the choice of a quarter of less than a third of the state’s registered Democrats.

That’s not unusual. The total primary turnout in 2016, in which both parties had contested nominating contests, was less than 30 percent.

Sanders also won the Nevada caucuses, with 46 percent of the 55,607 caucusgoers out of almost 692,000 eligible Democrats. Which means Sanders was the favorite of less than half of 8 percent.

And this man is being touted as the front-runner to win the Democratic presidential nomination? With less support than a one-legged stool?

How democratic is that?

Of course, it’s not only the Democrats who commit this assault on democracy; the numbers are similar for Republicans .

Many have proposed different ways to choose a nominee. But all of them involve primaries, which means all of them still will have a tiny minority doing the selecting.

Few Americans–less than 4 in 10–believe the primary system is the best way to choose candidates. So is there a better way?

In 2017, Walter Shapiro, who for decades covered presidential politics for USA Today, The Washington Post, and others, authored a white paper for the Brennan Center for Justice. Titled “The Chosen One: Thoughts on a Better, Fairer, and Smarter Way to Pick Presidential Nominees,” the paper points out numerous obstacles to the primary system, particularly battles between national party committees and state governments; rules governing the primaries (or caucuses); the influence of big money; and the plethora of choices, which we saw on the Republican side in 2016 and this year’s Democratic race, which at its zenith (or nadir, depending on your viewpoint), encompassed a grotesque 31 candidates.

But Shapiro’s white paper still advocated for primaries, just fewer of them. It didn’t propose to solve the conundrum of a nominee being chosen by a small percentage of registered voters.

There are those who insist that choosing a nominee shouldn’t be a process of massive participation. Writing in The Federalist, Kyle Sammin argued for elitism. “[T]he purpose of a primary,” he wrote, “is not mass democracy; it is to select which person will receive the endorsement of a private organization. That no more needs the participation of outsiders than the selection of a company’s CEO or a church’s bishop. … Only people who care enough about the party to join it get to have their opinion heard. ”

And that’s the solution: Do away with political parties. No parties, no need for primaries.

Steve Almond is a commentator for WBUR radio in Boston, a key NPR member station. On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections he proposed abolishing political parties, which grew up only after the creation of the Republic. Almond’s premise was that parties have become symbols of our worst political prejudices, so that when people see party candidates they see not people, but labels.

“In a world without labels,” Almond wrote, “candidates would be forced to appeal more to common sense and problem solving than tribal prejudice and partisan attacks.” He added, “We should be voting, instead, for the candidates whose policy proposals most closely align with our values and goals.”

And if this resulted in four or five candidates running for president in November? All the better.

Oh, I know: What if no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College? What if the election were tied up for days — weeks, even, in the House of Representatives? What kind of a mess would that put us in?

“Democracy is messy and it’s hard,” Robert Kennedy Jr., son of the martyred senator, acknowledged. “It’s never easy.”

Maybe that’s our trouble: We don’t like things messy. But maybe in making them simpler we made them worse. Consider that the next time you hear about some candidate’s “fabulous win” — and of the talk of “front-runner.”

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  • Looking around at what's happening all over the world...

    …the year 2020 is obviously not a great year for asking what works well in other countries. I’m still curious, though, about how and whether and which other countries have found good ways to select candidates that are more reflective of what most people want. Though the thought occurs that one of the big problems, in terms of whether our species is still going to be inhabiting a planet worth living on in fifty years, might be what most people want.

  • If banning political parties is the solution, what's the problem?

    The people have a right of free association. If that means anything, it means they have the right to form political parties and to act in concert to achieve their political goals. If your stated goal is more participation, you should be looking for ways to make political parties more accessible, indeed, you should be looking for ways to make political parties easier to create from scratch.

    The Democratic and Republican parties have a long and sordid history of rigging election rules to keep third parties off the ballot, from onerous petition requirements to voter registrations laws that prevent any choices other than the major parties, or “independent.” This is not how you involve more people, it’s how you keep people out.

    Indeed, the origin of nonpartisan state legislatures had nothing to do with increasing participation or avoiding tribalism—it was a reaction to electoral victories by the Socialist Party in state and local elections in the midwest. The major parties figured that voters wouldn’t be able to figure out which candidate was the Socialist if the party names weren’t on the ballot. In other words, they used the levers of state power to keep voters from expressing their true wishes at the ballot box.

    There are plenty of ways to make primary elections work better, and particularly the Iowa caucus process. I made several suggestions to the Iowa Democratic Party in this open letter:, including the use of a ranked-choice ballot like Single Transferable Vote, lots more early voting and voting by mail, and deciding the outcome by one person one vote (which it seems bizarre that we don’t already do). When you make it easier to vote, and when the outcome really reflects the wishers of the people who voted, you should get more participation.