If there is one thing everyone seems to agree on this election cycle, it is that the presidential nominating process is utterly “undemocratic.” From voter eligibility, to delegate allocation, and everything in between, candidates and their supporters from both parties are thoroughly fed up with the current primary system. It’s true that complaints about some aspect of the process crop up in every election season, but this year, the pronouncements against an allegedly undemocratic voting structure jive with the general outcry against established institutions prevalent on both the right and left. Conservatives are angered by the unfulfilled promises of congressional Republicans and the perceived detachment between the party’s base voters and elite donors. And despite eight years of a progressive president steadily pressing for economic improvement in the face of unprecedented opposition, many liberals are distressed at robust corporate profits and political influence given the many failures of capitalism that led to the 2008 financial crisis. If this feels a bit too much like sour grapes, that’s because it is. When you don’t like the results, attack the process. This time around, though, the cries of collusion and elitism are louder and the consternation among voters and media members more intense. This heated rhetoric, however, fails to provide a fundamental predicate to the ultimate conclusion: what exactly would a truly democratic primary system look like?
The main voice assailing the primary process these days has been the loudest voice throughout the entire presidential campaign. Donald Trump has called his party’s nomination system “absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal.” His basis for this radical assertion is the dawning realization that the months-long effort by Ted Cruz to hand-pick delegates favorable to him may make Trump vulnerable should the convention voting outlast a first ballot. That is, while the primaries bind delegates (no matter who they are) to vote for candidates on the first ballot according to the electoral results and their state’s allocation rules, the actual identity of the men and women selected as delegates is determinative for subsequent votes should no candidate achieve a majority the first time around. Understanding that, Cruz has managed to get scores of his own supporters selected as Trump-bound (first ballot) delegates, creating the high likelihood of defections should Trump fail to get the 1,237 delegates need to win initially. Faced with the reality that he has failed to properly manage his campaign’s delegate selection organization, Trump is lashing out against the system itself.
Cruz and Kasich are doing their best to legitimize Trump’s characteristic whining about the process. This week, these two candidates’ campaigns released symbiotic statements dividing up the remaining states in an effort to stop Trump from reaching a majority of delegates on a first ballot in Cleveland. Kasich will withdraw from campaigning in Indiana in advance of that state’s May 3rd primary in order to boost Cruz’s chances of victory there, while Cruz will cease his efforts in New Mexico and Oregon to return the favor to Kasich. It’s a cynical ploy to be sure. The Trump challengers are directing their supporters to vote based on dislike rather than pure conviction, using an inside-baseball stratagem instead of an appeal to our better angels. And yet, this strategy is nothing more than coordinated strategic voting; something that happens in every election and is entirely consistent with democratic expressions of public opinion. Indeed, if Republicans had coordinated a little more in the early stages of the campaign to rally around their collective disdain for the frontrunner, Trump might not be as strong as he is today. Now that Trump has a large lead in delegates, though, this explicit coordination smacks of a usurpation of the will of the voters. Trump has seized on exactly this sentiment, lumping the tactic in with the rest of the corrupt system he’s running against. Trump tweeted on the night of the twin announcements that Cruz and Kasich “are going to collude in order to keep me from getting the Republican nomination.”
Of course, Trump is not the only Republican with a gripe to air about American democracy in action. The non-proportional weighting of Republican delegate allocation gives a disproportionate share of delegates to candidates who win states, no matter by how small a plurality or how narrow a margin. In this election season, that benefit has inured to Trump. As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum wryly noted:
I hate to agree with Donald Trump about anything, but he’s got a point: the Republican primary process is really unfair. Just look at New York: Kasich and Cruz won 40 percent of the vote but only 4 percent of the delegates. It’s an outrage. And it’s been that way all along. In the early contests, Trump’s opponents won 68 percent of the vote but only 38 percent of the delegates.
Drum is right. Trump has greatly benefitted from the combination of a large and stubbornly persistent group of candidates and the high vote thresholds required for accumulating delegates in many states. As previewed here the day before Super Tuesday, the delegate rules in the early voting southern states gave Trump a huge delegate boost from his sizable minority given the badly fractured field. If democracy is majority rule, then Trump’s likely nomination appears to be the tyranny of a rump plurality.
The Democratic side has had its fair share of controversy over the extent to which its primary process conforms to democratic ideals, as well. From the beginning of the campaign, Bernie Sanders supporters have fervently pressed the argument that superdelegates are undemocratic and that a nominee with fewer pledged delegates who wins using superdelegates is illegitimate. Writing for CNN in February, Sally Kohn wrote (while badly mangling the history of the Obama-Clinton contest of 2008) that “superdelegates are definitely not what democracy looks like. Anything but.” Sanders himself has been deeply critical of this aspect of the process, saying that “the whole concept of superdelegates is problematic.” But then, when his path to a pledged delegate lead became foreclosed, he reversed course and suggested he would seek to override the voting public and attempt to pick off superdelegates leading up to the convention.
Sanders has also challenged the propriety of so-called “closed” primaries in which only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their respective primaries. “Today, 3 million people in the state of New York who are independents have lost their right to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary,” Sanders said on the day he lost New York’s closed primary by double-digits, adding, “That’s wrong.” Presumably Sanders would prefer millions of independent voters with few ties to the Democratic Party to help choose its nominee. After all, he is one of them. Others, however, sensibly contend that only those committed to the party as an institution should have a say in who selects its leader. Closed primary systems also limit the potential for undemocratic abuses, such as Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” encouraging Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries for the purpose of harming Democratic chances in the general election.
Beyond these individual critiques, the Sanders campaign has pressed a wholesale critique of political parties and the primary process itself as currently constructed. As Vox recently reported from the heart of Bernieland USA, Ithaca, NY:
Sanders’s supporters feel burned. They believe their candidate is the rightful heir to the Democratic nomination, despite Hillary Clinton’s dominance in votes and in the delegate math. They believe the system is stacked against Sanders, and his expected loss in the New York primary on Tuesday just proves the point. At a glance, this could be interpreted as a whole town in denial. But there’s a real reason for their position: Sanders supporters are drawn to him because he wants to spark a political revolution that blows up the system. The system — from delegate math to voter registration dates — is the reason, they believe, Bernie is behind.
Sanders supporters don’t trust party leaders, and they don’t accept the party’s role in setting a nomination schedule and agenda.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has complained about the arcane, disenfranchising nature of party caucuses, contests in which Sanders has excelled. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow at the end of March, Clinton noted that “not as many people participate in caucuses as they do in primaries” and suggested that “caucuses are a very unusual way for some states to really choose who they want to be delegates and who those delegates are pledged to.” Many other commentators have gone further, calling the use of caucuses over primaries, yes, “undemocratic.”
Add it all up and you find that a democracy is a rather difficult political system to define or construct. A party nomination must go to the candidate who wins the most delegates in open primaries that award delegates in perfect proportion to that candidate’s vote share. The candidate cannot be backed excessively by the party infrastructure or elite donors. There cannot be any system to protect the party against a nominee well outside the mainstream. The election must be the product of voters expressing their sincere preferences without use of strategic voting, coordinated or otherwise. Delegates once pledged must remain pledged. Any failure to meet these requirements, we are told, would leave voters angry and the electorate in turmoil. Never mind that turmoil is often the sign of a well-functioning democracy.
The only way to meet such a lofty ideal is to establish a single-day, nation-wide primary in which every state votes according to the same rules at the same time. While granting the benefit of uniformity and even-handedness between states and voters across the country, such a system would greatly advantage big-name and big money candidates. It takes six months of campaigning and the resources of two massive, powerful political parties to raise the Democratic and Republican nominees’ profiles to national universality. Even in today’s saturated political media market, most voters outside of Iowa and New Hampshire (and the highly politically attuned) only learn enough about each candidate to make an informed choice in the weeks leading up to their state’s primary. The current, staggered primary process is intended to give lesser-known candidates the ability to gain name-recognition through retail campaigning in smaller, less expensive states. Seen in this light, the nationwide solution is in many ways, well, undemocratic.
For this reason, it is far too simplistic to state as Joe Scarborough recently did on his MSNBC program Morning Joe: “The system’s rigged. You don’t negotiate with party insiders. People go to the polls. They vote. They exercise their democratic right, and then we decide who wins based on the voting.” Instead, as Bill Scher correctly noted: “there is no one democratically pure method for choosing party nominees.” Indeed, democracy isn’t always all that democratic. That is, the process of aggregating public opinion into public choice is easily manipulated and impossible to purify, no matter what system is used—even when the process ostensibly follows the one person one vote ideal.
Indeed, there is no possible method for aggregating public opinion among multiple options into a purely and unquestionably democratic public choice. That’s the lesson of Kenneth Arrow’s work from the 1950s, now summarized as Arrow’s Theorem. Arrow made four assumptions about what people could generally agree were core democratic principles, and then showed that no voting system existed that could accomplish each of those aims when there were more than two choices. First, Arrow assumed universality or unrestricted domain—the concept that every voter should have the ability to rank their preferences in any manner they choose without restriction. Second, Arrow imposed a requirement of unanimity (also known as Pareto efficiency)—if everyone in a group prefers X over Y, than the group prefers X over Y. Third, the theorem requires an independence from irrelevant alternatives—the idea that a choice between X and Y should not be influenced by changing views between X and Z. Fourth and finally, Arrow’s Theorem assumes that a fair voting system will not have a dictator—no single voter’s preferences should control every outcome. Under these conditions, Arrow proved that no viable method for producing a group decision existed. Stated differently, every voting system that respects the first three ideals is not a democracy but a dictatorship. The proof and implications of this discovery are fascinating and consequential.
Although Arrow’s Theorem does not apply to every election—the Sanders-Clinton contest, for instance, has only two candidates and thus operates outside the theorem’s strictures—the general conclusion is instructive. Scarborough’s assumption—that people vote and the collective decision follows simply and inexorably—is a fiction. Instead, the manner and method of voting is a critical and unavoidable component of democratic exercise. Molding outcomes by setting and controlling the agenda has a long history in world democracies—a practice professor William H. Riker called heresthetics. What ensures that a system remains not only democratic but also fair, then, is not some unachievable ideal of a perfect voting system. Rather, the key is that the rules of the game be known in advance, long before candidates, parties, and pollsters have a feel for the individual preferences of the voters.
All of the other practices objected to this cycle may very well be unwise or inadvisable. We may want to lower the barriers to voting, or reduce the influence of money in politics, or restrict or expand voting to committed partisans or the general population. But each of these decisions reflects the belief in and weight accorded to different societal values. They do not call into question the basic democratic legitimacy of the choice. Democracy has always been a messy, imperfect endeavor. Work to change it if you wish. But disputing the outcome of voting process known to all in advance because the results are not to your liking is rather undemocratic.