Policy Wonk: How to fix the presidential nominating hodge-podge

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There is both irony and hypocrisy in the claims of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump that the nominating process was rigged, that it favored other, more establishment, candidates.

Sanders hated the superdelegates (seasoned elected officials and state party leaders) who overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton. He disliked closed Democratic primaries because they, too, favored Clinton; he wanted the benefit of cross-over Republicans and independents. He loved the caucus states: low-turnout settings where a relative handful of committed supporters could win the state.

Trump hated the caucus states; he had no grassroots organization and lost most of the early caucuses. He also hated the fact that the process forced him to compete against 16 other candidates with no winnowing process to shrink the field. He loved wide open primaries, settings where Reagan Democrats and independents could vote for him. He also liked the “winner-take-all” feature of late, large-state primaries.

That said, both of these candidates want to change the nominating process in quite different ways. Sanders wants to significantly reduce superdelegates. Trump wants the big-state winner-take-all primaries to come earlier in the process.

But simple answers don’t go far enough, and the old aphorism “be careful what you wish for” applies.

Here are some fair, more uniform presidential nominating rules I’d push for:

• Shorten the nominating time frame, and position it closer to the November general election; 60 days (May and June) is sufficient to allow all 50 states to hold primaries, and party conventions could follow in July. That would allow a minimum of three full months for nominated individuals to run for the office.

• Iowa and New Hampshire should not set the tone for a national presidential nominating process;they are not representative of the nation as a whole. Within the suggested May-June period, five or six primary dates (10-12 days apart) could be chosen; groups of eight to 10 states reflecting a balance of rural/urban, population, and geography could be fashioned. Each group would vote on one of the primary dates. A group of states that voted first in one presidential year would rotate to vote last the next presidential year. This rotation would, over time, allow every state to be part of the lead, the middle, or the conclusion of the nominating process.

• State caucuses are not a broad democratic nominating tool, because they give undue weight to party insiders; well-organized (and often well-funded) splinter groups on the left or the right can turn out the faithful and capture the nomination for their candidate. Accordingly, in all 50 states the public’s preference for respective Democratic and Republican nominees for the office of president should be determined by statewide election; this will allow a broad cross-section of the public to participate in each party’s nominating process.

• In each state, the percentage of votes cast for each nominee in the primary should determine the percentage of that state’s delegates that each nominee will have at state and national conventions. In short, primary delegates should be apportioned on the basis of votes cast; there should be no winner-take-all states.

• Given the long history of our two-party system, Democrats and Republicans alone should choose their respective presidential candidates in closed primaries. Before each primary election, individuals should be free to change their party affiliation, and independents are free to affiliate with a party in order to vote for a nominee. But once party affiliation (or independent status) is established, individuals can’t have it both ways. Mischievous cross-over voting and/or voting by independents should be barred.

• Don’t eliminate superdelegates. These delegates bring a stabilizing factor to the nominating process. They provide institutional memory; they are usually elected officials or long-time party leaders who have worked with one or more of the nominees. They are unlikely to be caught up in the showmanship or charisma a particular nominee may bring to the table. Their number (15-20 percent of the total number of delegates) should not outweigh the voting strength of primary voters, but their independent insight and longer view of the candidates and party needs should remain part of the process.

The respective parties remain free to choose the time, place and total number of delegates to their national conventions; they may apportion these delegates among the states as they see fit; they may hold (as few, or many) candidate debates as they choose during the nominating period.

As the process unfolds they can narrow the field by requiring nominees to have a threshold number of delegates in later primaries. And they have the power to enforce rules (along the lines suggested here) by refusing to seat state delegations who will not create a more equitable, inclusive presidential nominating process.

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlandodelogu@maine.rr.com.