Presidential primary system reform is doable

1 Mar

Our presidential primary process is:

  • overly complicated
  • overly long

…which are bad things for all the reasons I laid out here. Fortunately, control of the process lies in the hands of the individual parties rather than the federal constitution or federal or state law, so reform shouldn’t require any grand political bargaining across the aisle. Moreover, each party has a strong interest in optimizing the process to select their most viable candidate. Given these facts, why then has the status quo prevailed? The simplest┬áreason is probably that would-be primary reformers simply haven’t settled upon a viable alternative. The most common proposal is a simple “national primary”, which would have a pretty obvious flaw:

The major flaw in the concept is that it takes the phenomenon of frontloading, which other reform plans seek to alleviate, to its ultimate conclusion. Candidates would need to raise huge sums of money, before the first vote was cast in any state, in order to wage a nation-wide campaign. Neither the Republican National Committee’s 2000 Advisory Commission on the Presidential Nominating Process nor the Democratic National Committee’s 2005 Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling considered a national primary as a reform concept; rather they considered it the consequence of inadequate action to reform the process.

The real fault in the idea is that it simply goes a step too far. Yes, we need a national primary, but one with multiple rounds. Adapting my election ideas from the earlier post, my primary system would involve at least two rounds, the first a national STV vote held about four months before the convention to narrow the field down to ~6 candidates, the second a national IRV vote to select the nominee one month before the convention. You might possibly add another STV round in between, selecting ~20 candidates in the first round, ~6 in the second, and a nominee in the final round. Either way, you’d avoid the inevitable front-runner bias of a single-round national primary and probably make the field actually more open than it is currently rather than less. Best of all, you’d greatly simplify and expedite the process, sparing us from the endless 18+ month slog we know today (including the endless media speculation about brokered conventions and county-by-county voting patterns).

If you want to preserve out-sized influence for the smaller states, simply give them a bonus modifier, e.g. one Wyoming vote counts for Nx one Californian vote.

The only real downside I can see is the added cost of holding multiple voting rounds in every state, but it seems like a pretty small price to pay. If this is really an issue, the parties could hold the earlier rounds as private elections, perhaps online (involving, of course, some kind of registered party member authentication and perhaps supplemented with traditional onsite voting). After all, the nomination process is not really a state function, so the nomination contests needn’t really be conducted under the auspices of the state.

If Democrats and Republicans want to avoid a future primary debacle like the 2012 Republican primary, they should give primary reform serious attention.

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