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The Ethics of our Presidential Nominating System

The Needs of the Many Outweighed by the Influence of the Few

Imagine you bought a lottery ticket and won only to be told that you may not have won because delegates were assigned based on the amount of your winnings and the majority of them must vote to sanction your winnings. This just about characterizes our broken Presidential nominating system.

Party faithful respond to criticisms about the unfairness of the system by saying ‘the rules are the rules and everyone must follow them.’ True enough but that misses the point that the rules are made by those with undue influence on the party and statewide systems are subject to the vagaries of those rules.

In short, many voters in the U.S. feel the system is broken; it disenfranchises millions; and is subject to discrimination. Don’t even get me started on the obscene amounts of money spent during this primary season and the destructive forces of Political Action Groups. (Thanks Supreme Court for giving us Citizens United).

I chuckle at those who fight back against candidates like Donald Trump who constantly labels the nominating process as being rigged. For once I agree with Trump. Moreover, to say the rules are the rules and they must be followed by all is hypocritical at best.

These are some of the same people who decide not to follow the rules when it comes to illegal immigration and what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants in our country. Don’t get me wrong. I feel empathy towards these folks but they are here illegally. What is it about that word for those who point to the rules in our nominating system as being the be all and end all of the process and then dismiss the importance of implementing the rules of our immigration system?

Let’s examine our nominating process. States like Iowa and New Hampshire go first; the latter with an election the former with caucuses. Each works differently. With elections the candidate receives a number of votes based on each state’s rules. Some states, like New York, award delegates based on the percentage of the vote. Trump and Clinton received greater than 50%, so they were awarded the bulk of the delegates. If they also won greater than 50% in each precinct, then they received three delegates for that precinct. If not, the highest gets two while the second highest gets one delegate. Confused? You are not alone.

The caucus process is more akin to a public meeting than an election, particularly on the Democratic side, and circumvents the nomination race by severely limiting voter turnout and rewarding more extreme voters. Because coming to a caucus is much more of a commitment than casting a traditional secret ballot – both in the amount of time it takes and, for the Democratic primary in Iowa at least, having to publicly declare your allegiance – they tend to attract the most committed supporters of a candidate and only those who have the time to navigate the drawn-out process.

Voters who perceive caucuses as unfair, less friendly to different points of view, and better for special interests may not be able to perfectly articulate what is wrong with caucuses, but their intuition that caucuses are not representative is supported by the data.

The other problem with Iowa and New Hampshire and many others smaller states going before the big ones (i.e., New York and California) is by the time New Yorkers and Californians vote the nominee may have been elected as occurred in 2012. It is true this year is different and voters in California may have a say in the Republican nominating process. But in most years their votes do not make a difference in the outcome.

Consistency is not a hallmark of our nominating process across the states. Unlike caucuses, primaries are conducted in most states at regular polling stations. Voters generally cast a secret ballot for their preferred candidate. Generally, there are two types of primaries: closed, in which only voters registered with the party holding the primary can participate; and open, in which voters are not required to be registered with the party holding the primary. So it is possible that a Republican candidate like Donald Trump wins a state because registered Democrats can vote in an open primary and decide it is better to have Clinton run against Trump than Cruz or Kasich. I bet this has occurred in open primary states.

The most abusive element of our nominating process is the designation of the super-delegates. Clinton has about 62 percent of the elected delegates but 93 percent of the total delegates once the super-delegates are counted. How is this fair? Is this representative of the public in specific states? I believe these delegates are the epitome of unaccountable party politicking; they were explicitly brought into being after Democratic officials were unhappy with the winners of the 1972 and 1976 presidential primaries.

These delegates can switch so it is theoretically possible for them to tip a close election one way or the other. It's never really come to that, and there are reasons to think the super-delegates wouldn't ultimately reverse the voters' will, but it could mathematically happen. (Republicans have super-delegates too, but they aren't free to vote for any old candidate.) We also have uncommitted delegates in some states and I could criticize it as well, but you get the point.

The upshot of the presidential primary system is that it leaves a lot of people out in the cold unless the race is so competitive that it comes down to the final few states. Even then, voters in later states don't get to choose from the same slate of candidates as those who go first. Some of the “best” candidates may have already dropped out.

So what is the answer? Some argue a national primary system is the way to go. Let’s have one primary election on one day and save a lot of time and millions of dollars pouring into the system by special interests.

The problem with actually implementing a new system is the super-delegates and special interests who benefit from the current system will do just about anything to preserve their positions, while others only see the drawbacks with the system every four years and then forget about them until the next nomination season rolls around.

My suggestion is to hold rounds of elections. In the first go-around the candidates run against each other and the top three vote-getters go into a runoff election. If one candidate gets greater than 50 percent in the initial vote or runoff, then the process ends and that person is the nominee. It shouldn’t take more than two rounds to get it done.

Like many other things in our country, problems in the electoral system have been allowed to fester over time. Whether it’s our schools, roads, immigration system, or nominating process, we, in America, are good at ‘kicking the can down the road.’ We need reform in our election process and we need it now to stay a vibrant democracy.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on April 26, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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