Blogs > HNN > America's Shame: The Absurd Primary System

Mar 5, 2008 5:22 pm

America's Shame: The Absurd Primary System

Just as the 2000 election deadlock between George W. Bush and Al Gore highlighted all the dysfunctional elements in America’s general electoral system, this titanic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is showcasing all the absurdities of the system for nominating presidential candidates. It is not much of a partisan statement to say that the Democrats seem to have an even stupider system than the Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island guarantee that the system is going to get tested in ways it has never been before. As Clinton and Obama get closer and closer to the Democratic National Convention, the strains on the system – and the Democrats’ remarkably un-democratic approach to nominating standard-bearers -- will show more and more.

I have already complained about the outrageous way millions of voters in Florida and Michigan were disenfranchised, merely to satisfy petty dictators from the small, unrepresentative states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Now, the fact that the Democratic Party poohbahs in their wisdom decided that the delegates who were properly selected in the Florida and Michigan primaries should not be counted is going to take on dramatic significance. Hillary Clinton, who was wrong to buy into the Florida and Michigan boycott, is going to argue for the rights of those voters to be heard. Obviously, this has less to do with a newfound appreciation for democracy and more to do with, shock of all shocks, advancing her self-interest.

Similarly, the difficulty explaining the Texas prima-caucus, combining New Hampshire-style beauty contest general voting with Iowa-style caucusing, also demands scrutiny. From poor people who had to leave work early or spend precious resources to get to the voting booth, to overstressed executives who had to carve time out of their overscheduled days, voters are going to wonder why they bothered participating in a charade, if their votes don’t count fully.

Ironically, one of the features many people criticize about the general election may help solve another one of the primary problems. This morning, the Clinton people are feeling frustrated that their big wins in crucial states like Texas, Ohio, New York, California and New Jersey have not had the impact they should. Moreover, Hillary Clinton’s success in these big states – along with Florida and Michigan – make her a surprisingly compelling candidate, despite the awful campaign she has run. A winner-take-all approach in those states would have drastically changed this race – and given Hillary Clinton at this point at better chance at overtaking Obama in Pennsylvania. If most states on Election Day are going to be winner-take-all, and if the Electoral College is going to continue favoring the large states, maybe the nominating systems needs to be aligned with the electoral system by becoming winner-take-all too.

Finally, the fact that this Democratic nomination is going to be decided by the super-delegates is particularly tragic. Thanks largely to Barack Obama, there has been a populist energy and excitement in this race that has not been seen in at least sixteen years – since the previous Clinton first ran (that guy named Bill, currently under wraps as the Hillary Clinton campaign tries to avoid more embarrassment). Both Democrats have to think about how to win without losing the ardent supporters of their primary opponent. A feeling of “we wuz robbed” by the elites and not by the people, will not be conducive to the party healing the aftermath of such a knock-down, drag-out nominating contest will require.

From a perspective of democratic theory, the super-delegates face a fascinating super-conundrum. What should be the basis of their vote – their district’s expressed desire, if they represent a particular locale; their state’s expressed desire; the overall leader in delegates; the overall leader in popular votes – which could be different; the overall leader in states’ won – which could also be different; the candidate to whom they are closest or from whom they have received the most favors in the past; the candidate they think most likely to win in November; or the person they think will make the best president? This is the kind of question that could launch a dozen fascinating dissertations – but should not, in a functioning democracy, have to be posed.

One of the most sacred acts in a democracy is the act of voting for your leader. This popular input should carry over into the nominating process. We need clean, clear, direct, above-board primaries and general elections. It is a source of great sadness to me that I have to write the following words: the United States is failing that fundamental democratic test. Whoever wins in November, let us hope that he – or she – undertakes to fix this Rube Goldberg system for electing the President of the United States of America.

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