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America's Voting System is Broken. It's Time to Overhaul It

Hillary Clinton squarely won the democratic nomination. But it’s not just Bernie Sanders supporters who are decrying the flaws in methodology

Trevor Timm

 by The Guardian

There’s no debate at this point that Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote and the delegate count to win the Democratic primary. But even Clinton supporters should agree that our supposedly “democratic” system for picking nominees for president is terribly broken and should be dramatically overhauled.

It’s not just Bernie Sanders’ campaign that should (and has) argued that the voting system in this country is “rigged”. Virtually every major campaign in both parties griped about how the other was winning at some point during this campaign, and along the way almost all of them were right.

First, there are the delegates themselves – the “representatives” that voters “choose” to express their interests at the party conventions (but sometimes don’t have to comply). Each state has its own rules for how delegates are allocated, and they are almost always ridiculously complicated. In both parties, delegate counts regularly do not match up to the percentage of votes candidates received in the primaries. For example, as Fusion’s Felix Salmon demonstrated in March, Trump had dramatically more delegates than his percentage of the Republican vote at that point, and Sanders had dramatically fewer delegates than his percentage on the Democratic side.

Why, in 2016, do we even have this convoluted system? We don’t live in the 1800s anymore, and it’s not like the party primary rules are written into the Constitution like the antiquated electoral college is. A recent poll showed that a whopping 71% of the public would prefer to cut out delegates altogether and vote directly. Just eliminate them.

The Sanders campaign’s biggest criticism throughout the campaign was the superdelegates – and for good reason. It is a massively undemocratic system where almost a fifth of the party delegates are decided by already elected officials and people appointed by the party leadership, who inevitably tilt toward the establishment candidate. They put any insurgent candidate far behind in the race for president before a ballot is even cast, and can effectively end an election in the media before voters have a chance to express their opinion.

Another problem is caucuses. Why haven’t they been abolished? On top of being absurdly complicated, they take hours to complete, leaving many working people unable to attend them. And those who can attend sometimes won’t just because it’s so boring, confusing and long. For example, despite the massive media attention, only 15.7% of registered voters turned out for this year’s Iowa caucuses. Other states were even lower.

Yes, Sanders generally did better in caucuses than Clinton, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be pushing for them to be banned just the same. Caucuses are dumb – everyone admits this. Get rid of them.

Then there are the two opening primary states themselves, Iowa and New Hampshire, where dozens of potential candidates flock to pander to voters for nearly two years before every presidential election. The rest of the 48 states see the candidates for a week or two, sometimes less.

Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the whitest and most rural states in the nation, and they have little in common with the vast majority of the country. The outsized importance they play in our national politics makes little sense.

Finally, there’s the question of who should get to vote in primary elections and the sometimes complicated rules for registering to vote in them. Given the success of outsiders such as Trump and Sanders, members of both parties have publicly complained about open primaries – where independent voters can participate – and have talked about restricting them even further in the next election cycle (Republicans much more than Democrats). Twenty states currently have open presidential primaries.

More restrictions would be a horrible mistake. Given the dominance of our two-party system coupled with how the Constitution sets up how presidents are elected, it’s virtually impossible that a third-party candidate can ever win the presidency.

That means that anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a “Democrat” or “Republican” would get no say in who we nominate for the most important job in the world. If all states closed their primaries to non-party members, that automatically would exclude 43% of all voters. Every primary should be open: it’s that simple.

Voting doesn’t have to be complicated. Just look at Oregon. As Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson reported, Oregon has one of the best voting set-ups in the nation: everyone is automatically registered, there are no voter ID laws, you can vote by mail – no lines, no hassles. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill in the US Senate to make those rules national.

Naturally, it has no chance of passing.


© 2020 The Guardian
Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico.

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