Is the Democratic Primary Really that Democratic?
By Nick Magliocco
Voting is super cool! At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch politician, voting systems are intensely important. As much as I wish there was more attention on voting systems, it’s far from most Americans’ priorities. However, the debacle that was the Iowa Caucuses has given me slight hope that such a terrible system might change. The root of many of the issues in voting seems to stem from wanting to reach a consensus for a nominee while fearing change and accepting elitism.
At Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Nevada, moderator Chuck Todd asked, “Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee even if they are short of a majority?” It was a relatively simple question among the ones dealing with domestic policy and international relations asked of the candidates on the debate stage. Even the candidate’s answers were predictable. Most candidates responded saying that the candidate with the most delegates and short of a majority should not win and the system currently employed at the Democratic National Convention should work as intended. Bernie Sanders, however, stood alone on the issue. It’s not hard to find a reason why Bernie delivered such a hot take among the candidates. As the current frontrunner and most left-leaning member of the race, he’d much rather hedge his bets on the popularity he has garnered among voters rather than the Democratic Party’s superdelegates.
Regardless of who you may agree with in this scenario the existence of the superdelegates, entities not many Americans are even aware of, make the moderator’s question much more complicated than it seems. Created in 1980, superdelegates are reserved for party leaders and are set up to ensure the party can control who gets the nomination to some extent. (After 2016, the Democratic Party changed its rules and superdelegates will now only be counted on a second ballot if there is a contested convention).
The actual goal, or at least the one stated by the party, is to reach a decision that matches the sentiments of the Democratic Party and its base of voters. Essentially, it seeks to reach a consensus. This same goal is found in the continued existence of caucuses. Formerly the most popular form of primary voters, the practice is held onto in certain states. Most notably, Iowa still holds caucuses and exercises a great deal of influence over the primaries. Caucuses have their participants choose candidates by standing in different groups or simply by counting raised hands. Despite seeming archaic, caucuses remain prevalent for one reason: consensus. At caucuses, candidates who do not receive enough votes are eliminated as an option. Participants must now either abstain from voting or choose another candidate, thus encouraging consensus.
While the caucuses in Iowa this election season had their own set of issues including a trainwreck of an app, the caucuses have plenty of other issues that overshadow the consensus it hopes to reach. The counting system is notably archaic and the open forum may lead to social pressure and dishonest voting. I describe both superdelegates and the caucuses at such length because I wish to show that what these systems are aiming to achieve is consensus and the avoidance of minority rule. However, what you really end up with is a system that silences individuals and encourages elitism.
The current system is nothing short of abysmal. The solution is not just tweaks and adjustments and other solutions to be implemented after the fact. The solution needs to be more foundational in the form of ranked-choice voting. Ballotpedia describes ranked-choice voting as, “voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots.” By ranking candidates, the voters’ second and third choices become important in deciding a nominee. Essentially, ranked-choice finds the consensus that institutions like superdelegates and caucuses try and fail to find.
Furthermore, it also avoids the glaring issues of elitism, social pressure, and lack of reliability that existing systems suffer from. Luckily, states and municipalities across the United States have implemented ranked-choice voting already and this had led to results that would not have happened under the current system. In Maine, the results of one congressional district led to the election of one candidate who had not initially received the most votes but whose victory would make the most people satisfied according to voters’ ranking. By respecting voter choice (and second choice and third choice and fourth choice…) and keeping ballots secret, ranked-choice voting proves itself a solution to at least some of our nation’s voting woes.