Issue Report: Primaries in US elections

Are US primary elections sound or should they be abandoned?

Both major American political parties (Republican and Democrat) run a series of ‘primaries’ before the quadrennial (four-yearly) presidential election. In these primaries, votes are held within states amongst registered voters to decide who the candidate for the election proper shall be for the relevant party. Some state parties only allow registered voters of their own party to participate (‘closed primaries’); others also permit registered independent voters to take part. Parties in some states, for example the Democrats in Wisconsin, hold ‘open primaries’ – allowing members of the other party to vote in their primary, too! The resulting vote is reflected in who the state’s delegates are mandated to support standing for the leadership at the party’s convention: some primaries allow their state representation to be split in proportion to the votes cast (mostly Democratic ones), others are ‘winner takes all’ and give all their delegates to the winning candidate (mostly Republican). Prospective presidential candidates need a majority of delegates at their party’s convention to become the party’s nominee. The result of primary elections does not in itself determine the voting of the total number of delegates, as there are a number of ‘unpledged delegates’ (or ‘superdelegates’), such as party executives, officeholders (governors, congressmen etc) who are entitled to a vote at the party conference but are not bound by the primary held in their state. One of the aims in the primary season, therefore, is to amass enough pledged votes so as to not need any unpledged votes to be certain of a majority, thus ruling out last minute surprises from the wildcard votes. This was not always the case. Once, the nominees were solely decided at the parties’ respective conventions. As recently as the competition for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1960, the convention was crucial (there, in deciding the candidacy of John F. Kennedy with Lyndon Baines Johnson as his running mate). All votes in ‘primary season’ are not alike – indeed, some are not primaries, but ‘caucuses.’ This is true of the first vote in the calendar, the Iowa caucus. At caucuses, discussions take place on a very small scale – in town halls, schools etc – amongst groups of voters, before they decide whom to support, often after several stages of discussion and voting. There is a minimum percentage threshold over which a candidate must get before receiving delegates – in Iowa for example, it is 5%. Definitions: Open primary: Registered voters can cast a ballot in either party’s presidential primary. Closed primary: Only those pre-registered with a given party can vote in that party’s presidential primary. Modified closed primary: In California, only votes cast by registered party members count toward the official tally, but others can vote too. In Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can take part in a primary, but registered members of a party cannot vote in another party’s primary. In Rhode Island, both enrolled and unaffiliated voters can participate in a party’s presidential primary. Open caucus: Citizens can vote in either party’s presidential caucus. Closed caucus: Only registered party voters can vote in the presidential caucus of their party.[1]

Democracy: Are the primaries adequately democratic?

Primaries are largely the internal affairs of political parties

Primaries are not intended to be a fully democratic process. Political parties have a right to free association protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Included in this, is the right to construct primaries how they want. There is not obligation that the primary elections be “fair”. But, it is the party itself that has substantial authority to make the choice and to craft the rules of the primary that frame the choice. Therefore, primary elections don’t have to be perfectly fair.

Primary elections need not be fully democratic

The United States have developed an institutional tradition of undemocratic mechanisms designed to actually control political processes.These institutions such as the Supreme Court, the Electoral College , the President’s veto power have been part of the American Government and have helped preserve democracy since the foundation of the United States.

Primary elections are democratic and representative enough

A national primary would violate Party rights to association

The problem with a national primary is that it would violate many of the interests and powers that are constitutionally and politically necessary to preserve. First, it would violate the state governments’ powers in establishing the election process and state parties interests in working together with the state to craft this process. Second, it would violate the interests of the Parties to preserve their right to free association and to ensure that their nominee reflects the interests of their party.

Primaries help reveal candidates to the public

While some complain that the primaries are too long, these elections should be this long. These are not ordinary elections, but elections to select the most powerful man or woman on earth. It is worth taking the more time than most elections held around the world to scrutinize the candidates for this particular office. And, there are many important character traits that can only be revealed in such a lengthy grueling process. Endurance, fortitude, grace under fire are all necessary abilities in the face of such a massive campaign challenge, and they are all necessary abilities in the presidency itself. Therefore, the length of the process seems a greater asset than weakness in primary election system.

Primaries help underfunded candidates gain attention

Iowa and New Hampshire help reveal the candidates to the nation

It is beneficial that the candidates are all gathered in Iowa and New Hampshire for a number of weeks to compete against each other, give speeches, and to present themselves to the country. It is necessary that some states act as a stage for candidates to first show themselves to the nation. Why not Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which are small and so less likely to tip the scales to significantly in the beginning of the elections.

US primaries give needed power to state parties

Both Democrat and Republican parties have national and state entities. State parties are to the national party organizations as states are to the federal government. State parties have somewhat of an independent interest that must be respected in the broader electoral process. Primaries achieve this, by empowering state parties to play a part in formulating the process by which delegates will be selected in the primaries. Given the importance of state power in the United States, it is necessary to keep state parties relevant in this way through the current primary system.

Parties don't have to treat all candidates equally in primaries

In political Parties that have a First Amendment right to free association, there is not really an obligation to be “fair” to every candidate and offer something equivalent to “equal opportunity”. The party has a right to define what candidate is good for their political agenda and what candidate is bad for their political agenda. Basically, political parties can say, “if a candidate doesn’t like it, too bad, run for office with a different party.”

"Party bosses" are legally permitted to exercise power in primaries

Again, parties have the right to free association under the first amendment. And, while states may regulate the power of “party bosses” in state primaries, there is no constitutional obligation for them to do so.

Primaries are too undemocratic relative to general elections

The Primary elections are equally as important as the General election. For Democrats that hope to see a Democratic president, the Primaries are the elections that determine who that Democratic president might be. The same goes for Republicans. Yet, the general elections are a far more democratic process than the primaries, as the primaries give far more power to the Parties and delegates to determine the winner and nominee. Why is this? Primaries should be more democratic.

Iowa and New hampshire are unrepresentative of the US

Iowa and New Hampshire are both very small states that represent less than 1% of the electorate of the United States. They also do not reflect the diversity of interests that run across the United States. And, yet, these states are given unparalleled influence on the outcome the the presidential elections.

Iowa and New Hampshire should not always be first in the primaries

While it may be important to have a system in which some state are first in the primary election, is it necessary that it always be New Hampshire and Iowa? No. Why not have a rotating system in which different states are given the right to go first each year.

Some delegates are not obligated to vote according to popular will

This is undemocratic. Shouldn’t the nominee for a party reflect the public will of the voting party members?

Superdelegates are not bound to represent the electorate

In the past, “Super Delegates” have been a way for the Democratic party to secure a candidate at their convention. These elected officials make up a significant portion of the delegates and are not bound to vote for a particular candidate besides who they want to vote for them. This means that the electorate has no influence on who these “Super Delegates” vote for. In a close election, this can mean a small number of people with no concrete ties to the electorate, will decide the Democratic Candidate for the General Election.

The primary system pushes elections back in the calendar

This is a phenomenon known as by some as “front loading”, in which different states desire to be earlier in the primary process to have a greater impact, thus causing a leap frogging effect backward in the calendar year. This makes the process much longer, more drawn out, more expensive, and sometimes even turns citizens off to the process.

"Frontloading" shifts attention only to the earliest primaries and in this disrupting a real participatory democracy

Studies have confirmed that the “New Hampshire effect” translates to a shift in focus to the early primaries. In this way most states schedule their primary dates very early crowding the calendar. This allows for less time for voters to observe and evaluate their candidates and also skews the process towards the earliest dates.

Complicated US primaries lead to misleading vote counts

News media often reports the popular vote in primaries simply because it is easier to explain. But, this does not always reflect the reality of how delegates are appointed. The primaries, therefore, can create some level of public confusion.

Primary elections distribute power unequally among voters

Instead of giving states delegates based on population, electoral college, or strength of the party in that state, the parties have a formula involving several other factors. This formula does not give states with close to the same population the same amount of impact on the primary season.

The complicated primary system creates confusion and turns voters off

Every state has a different primary system. Some have primary elections, some have caucuses, and some have both. These and other variations make it difficult for ordinary voters to follow the system, understand how they should engage as voters, and subsequently has the potential to turn them off to voting all together, which is bad for democracy.

Complicated primary elections create confusion abroad

The US presidential elections are a globally important phenomena, but foreigners struggle to follow the process. This creates unfortunate impressions abroad about the system the elects the most powerful person in the world; a person that will affect foreigners.

State interests: Are state interests upheld in the primary election process?

Primaries create pride in unique local systems

While the primary system is complicated, this complication also produces pride within states and at precinct levels in the uniqueness of their particular process. This creates in voters a sense of identity with their state and Party and the process that they jointly develop. This is natural, since the United States is a government based on power-sharing between the federal and state governments. State governments benefit from the sense of pride and belonging that primaries foster. In short, the complicated primary system keeps states relevant and preserves their constitutional power.

US primaries give needed power to state parties

Both Democrat and Republican parties have national and state entities. State parties are to the national party organizations as states are to the federal government. State parties have somewhat of an independent interest that must be respected in the broader electoral process. Primaries achieve this, by empowering state parties to play a part in formulating the process by which delegates will be selected in the primaries. Given the importance of state power in the United States, it is necessary to keep state parties relevant in this way through the current primary system.

Primary election delegates are not distributed fairly between states

National party organizations do not assign delegates on the basis of population, but through a convoluted mix of political considerations. This means that two states with the same size populations may be given very different numbers of delegates. This means that the votes of citizens in different states count differently and that states generally are valued unequally.

Party strength: Do primaries help strengthen the political parties?

US primary elections help strengthen political parties.

The interests of state party organizations, such as the Tennessee Democratic Party, are important to consider in addition to the interests of the umbrella party organization (Democratic Party, Republican Party). And, these two organizational layers must work together cohesively to function most effectively. The primaries offer an opportunity for cohesion to be created, as it become necessary for state and national party organizations to coordinate their efforts and election processes and to reconcile their agendas. Such cohesion could not be flexed and exercised through something like a national primary.

Primaries are largely the internal affairs of political parties

Political parties are associations that have a right as well as a need to exercise their associational strength. The primaries are part of this.

Well organized conventions have always been "coronation" events.

Conventions only degenerate into arguments when the party concerned has been in trouble, as at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that saw street fighting between students and the police as the convention selected Vice-President Humphrey. Of course parties want well-orchestrated, triumphal conventions – they want to give the impression that their man is a winner and that they are united behind him. Furthermore and more importantly, the pre-primary conventions were corrupt, horse-trading events, with deals made in the fabled smoke-filled rooms filled with power brokers deciding who would become President. Delegates, whose votes would in theory decide the victor, were controlled by interest groups such as regional political patronage machines and business lobbies. The primaries make the convention a true party event, with all members of the party able to contribute.[2]

Primary elections give too much power to party "bosses"

Because political parties control primary elections, party bosses are given substantial power and authority in making decisions that lead to the election of the next president. This is undemocratic.

An unrepresentative primary system damages the party strength

If people feel that they are disenfranchised by the primary system, they are much less likely to vote and to generally participate in politics in the party that they affiliate with. This obviously damages the strength of political parties, which depend on an energized electorate.

The primary process reduces the level of debate at national conventions

Traditionally, the conventions were sources of ideological and policymaking debate for organisations – both Republican and Democrat – that are far less pan-national than their European counterparts (especially when the party concerned is out of power). Now, the conventions are little more than coronation events. As a result, policy-making suffers and a party’s position on an important issue may change from election to election, depending only upon the personal views of the candidate.[3]

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