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We need a better primary system

We need a better primary system

Because this one is dysfunctional.

I’ve been trying to design a good primary system. Or at least a better one.

The more I think about it, though, the harder creating a good design seems to be. The Founders didn’t offer much guidance, because they didn’t envision the party system in its present form, and the nomination process slowly evolved to what it is today.

These would be my suggestions for changes in the Republican primaries:

(1) Only Republicans vote. A voter’s party has to be declared some fixed amount of time before the primary in each state. Each state can set the amount of time, but there would be a minimum amount of time they could not shorten. I’m open to suggestions on what that amount of time would be.

(2) No winner-take-all primaries, or at least fewer of them, and only towards the end of the line. Or, if it’s winner-take-all, the winner has to get more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, delegates would be proportionally awarded. This, of course, has the problem of no one consolidating a lead as easily, and the possibility of the turmoil of a brokered convention. This sort of thing is one of the reasons designing a system that fits all contingencies is difficult.

(3) No early voting. Absentee voting according to the usual absentee rules. Early voting is unnecessary, and primaries are supposed to be snapshots of a certain point in time.

(4) Fewer debates. If there are a lot of candidates, the maximum number on stage is six or seven for each group. Every candidate gets the same question. No “so-and-so-said-such-and-such-about-you” questions designed to pit one against the other. If a candidate is attacked in another’s statement, the attacked person gets a one-minute rebuttal and the other gets 30 seconds after that.

(5) If no candidate has reached the delegate threshhold for winning the nomination, there is a run-off election where (as before) only Republicans vote. First numbers 2 and 3 have a runoff if they are within 5 (or perhaps 10?) points of each other. Then the winner of that runoff has another runoff with the number one person. This ought to make sure that the nominee is the person with the most support in the party. It would be expensive, but hopefully it wouldn’t come into play too often.

I’ve long been very dissatisfied with the primaries, long before the current primary season. The number of candidates, and the problem of vote splitting if there are too many in a particular category, have long bothered me. That’s what the runoffs would be for.

The order in which the states vote is another problem, one a lot of people have long complained about. But unless the votes in all states occur on one particular Primary Day, I’m not sure how to remedy that. But there’s no question that the early-voting states get the lion’s share of the influence.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


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#1 is unworkable. How would you determine who is a “republican”? Not by voter registration; just because someone has a little box ticked “republican” next to his name on a piece of paper in a file cabinet somewhere in Town Hall, that says nothing at all about how he will vote in the actual election. In principle, we could have a situation in which all voters who lean Democrat would be registered as Republicans, and vice versa. The only way to prevent this would be abandon the secret ballot, and that ain’t gonna happen.

There are other fatal problems with #1, but that’s the most obvious one.

    Registrations should be published as public record

      great unknown in reply to Neo. | March 13, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      It’s nobody’s business what me registration is. Registration should not only not be public, but as private as what my actual vote is.

      Registration in Florida is completely open record – we are the “sunshine state” after all.

      “Voter registration information is public record in Florida with a few exceptions. Your signature can be viewed, but not copied. Other information such as your name, address, date of birth, party affiliation, and when you voted is public information.”

      Everyone’s data is online, or you can buy your own CD from the State for $5 – it’s not really that big of a deal. In fact, that’s how I immediately found out that George Zimmerman was a registered democrat… and in case you’re wondering, as of February 29th he still is. Not very bright, that boy 😉

holdingmynose | March 13, 2016 at 7:28 am

Would you be writing this if your favored candidate were winning?

Perhaps the problem is that the GOPe is trying to undermine the process because the GOPe is not winning (Bush was supposed to simply buy his way to the top). The GOPe is keeping candidates in the race who should have gone home long ago just to hurt Trump and Cruz. They have obviously reached Rubio in some manner. The GOPe is not letting the chips fall where they may.

Even though the Dem establishment is trying to manipulate their primary with Hillary’s super-delegates, their primaries seem to be a bit more functional.

I suggest that a smaller, less powerful federal government will result in a less manipulated (fewer incentives) and more functional primary process. The problem is the ruling class, not the process. Remove the problem, not the effect.

I saw the opening of the Kansas City rally for Trump, and it’s clear he’s getting votes from Democrats, according to the numbers he cites, namely loss of numbers by the Democratic party plus higher numbers voting in the Republican primaries. But isn’t that the point?

To win the Presidency, the Republican party, which is in the minority, must get votes from nominal Democrats.

    clintack in reply to Valerie. | March 13, 2016 at 8:08 am

    The question is — who are these “crossover” voters?

    A) People who prefer Trump to either Hillary or Bernie even though they’re usually Democratic Party voters
    B) People who don’t really care between Hillary or Bernie, so they’re voting in the more interesting primary, but are reliable Democratic Party voters in the general election

    My impression is that they are mostly (B).

      Valerie in reply to clintack. | March 13, 2016 at 8:29 am

      You might be right. I remember Rush Limbaugh encouraging such behavior, so it’s entirely possible.

      I found Donald Trump’s speech in Kansas City. Here’s the whole thing. I only watched the first part with all the disruptors, as carried by FOX.

      jcarter50 in reply to clintack. | March 13, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      You’re missing the (C), which is the most likely explanation: Democratic voters voting in the Republican primary for the candidate — generally Trump or Cruz in this election, but mainly Trump — who they think has the least chance of winning against Clinton in the general election (and who aren’t Sanders supporters — or don’t think he has a chance against Clinton — such that they need to vote in their own primary to support Sanders).

    Neo in reply to Valerie. | March 13, 2016 at 8:13 am

    Equally, when you have Harry Reid threatening Republicans who switch over and vote in the Nevada caucuses, and no apparent reaction from the Voting Rights section of DOJ, you have to would whether federal voting rights are merely a one-way street.

People have been trying to improve voting algorithms for a very, very long time.

It turns out to be mathematically impossible — there *is* no process which is always “fair” when you’ve got more than two candidates. Any algorithm will run into scenarios where it fails to meet very simple ideas of fairness.

(There’s a reasonable summary here of the four different criteria mathematicians use to study voting algorithms.)

Right now, the GOP primary is in such a scenario — the candidate who would get the most first-place votes (Trump) would fail in one-on-one contests against one or two others (Cruz and maybe Rubio). This means no matter which candidate wins, there will be an argument that it was an unfair result.

I tend to hold with the more meta position — since all processes are flawed, you need to stick with the process you’ve got. The *most* unfair process is one in which you change the rules after the game has been played.

Of course the Democrats have screwed up their system even more — they’ve only got two candidates. It’s mathematically trivial to make a perfectly fair system in such a case — they had to go out of their way to design a process where superdelegates can skew the process against the wishes of a true majority of their voters.

TL;DR: It’s easy to determine which of two candidates the voters prefer. It’s impossible to determine which of three candidates the voters prefer. Because our commonsense notions of “prefer” contradict one another.

I’ve already said that I watched the opening of Trump’s Kansas City rally yesterday. Those of you who do not have regular TV need to find the clip, which is long, and should be available at the FOX website. It shows Donald Trump holding a rally with disruption by a series of Bernie and Hillary supporters.

He handles the whole situation beautifully, and still says what he wants to say.

He does not encourage violence, at all.

It was a very impressive performance. There’s a reason why this man inspires enthusiasm, and he should be getting all kinds of praise for his capable handling of these challenges.

    Mark in reply to Valerie. | March 13, 2016 at 10:33 am

    He tends to be entertaining and fun to watch – which apparently is enough to inspire enthusiasm in some. For several months I had great fun listening to his bombast and snarks…the hoopla in seeing the giant TRUMP lettered plane appearing in the morning mists to land at a rally was great theater.

    But then, I knew the difference between Mel Brooks theater (The Producers) and reality. No doubt he “inspires”…just as Obama had his fainting women, or the other hyper “great again” nationalist (Mussolini)had his delirious masses.

    Such fawning means nothing to those willing to be intelligent.

There seem to be three groups of players involved in the political parties process of determining candidates. The party leadership consisting of its senior officials and influential office holders and contributors, the political activists pushing their candidates and agendas and their contributors, and finally the rank and file party members. The way candidates were chosen before primaries let the party leadership determine the choice. Today the political activists dominate the process. If you want to alter that then it would seem the only two options are to return to the smoke-filled (or vapor-filled) rooms of the past, or have one single primary day where the rank and file turn out, cast their vote, and the leading candidate is chosen.

The obvious problem with 14 candidates is no one is likely to have a clear majority. So the question then becomes does it take a majority to win the nomination or does coming out #1 suffice?

This would probably be akin to an election in a parliamentary system where there are multiple parties and the PM builds a coalition, and maybe that is the answer? The leading candidate would have X time to build a coalition of the other candidates to reach the majority needed to be the parties nominee.

Where does it say that primaries are supposed to be, “snapshots of a certain point in time”? I voted early for Fred Thompson who withdrew a few days later but on the other hand, I like voting early and beating the crowd.

A variation on #5 that wouldn’t cost any extra is the “instant runoff” where voters rank order their candidates on a single ballot. The votes are then tallied by single elimination: on the first round, the first choice picks are counted, and the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. In the second round, those ballots who’s first choice was eliminated then vote with their second choice. This proceeds iteratively until the final two candidates, one of whom will then have an absolute majority. This gives the full weight to voter preferences, removes the need for multiple polling days, and will prevent what is here alleged: a candidate unpopular with the majority of voters winning the nomination with a plurality.

    Mark in reply to DR. Φ. | March 13, 2016 at 10:23 am

    The instant runoff sounds very fair and reasonably doable. Like neo-neocon I’ve always thought the primary system was absurd. And this election provides abundant evidence – if Trump wins he enter the election with 35 percent support in a badly fractured and unhappy party. (As compared to Rubio or Cruz, whose numbers for “second choice” are very high).

    Leave it to the stupid party to find creative ways to commit suicide – the obvious solution has been:

    1) Closed Primaries Only – if you don’t bother to register Republican, you don’t get to pretend to be in the party during primaries. After all (as Trump supporters should agree), we don’t want those “illegals” from the other party voting in our elections. 😉

    2) No winner takes all or weighted delegates. EVERY state should be in proportion to State Vote…period.

    3) Instant run-off.

    This would be a clean and simple process that would nominate the candidate with the highest level of Republican support.

    PS – It is my impression that open/closed primaries require the approval of State legislatures.

I’m concerned that at least some of the crossover votes are a Democrat “Operation Chaos.” That sort of thing in Georgia by Republicans gave us Lester Maddox, who was perceived by the usual suspects of being an easy to beat racist clown. I was out of the state during those years but my dad said that Maddox governed moderately and well. If the current crossover vote is an “Operation Chaos”, they’d better be careful what they wish for. It’s hard to see a narrow conservative like Cruz beating either of the Democrats.

Amen! End early cheating,,,.,.er voting! Christmas comes but one day a year, there is no early opening of presents. Why can’t voting be only one day a year? People confuse early with absentee voting……by the design of both parties.

I don’t know how you could enforce #1. I agree with #2 in part. The delegates should be proportionally awarded in all primaries/caucuses. This helps to ensure that all voices are heard. #3 could be an easy fix by having all primaries/caucuses held on the same day. This also solves the problem of early states deciding the nominee before all states have been heard. #4 I don’t mind debates, it’s a good way to get a feel for how the candidates handle themselves under fire. However, I want to see more debates by the ones that actually have a shot at winning the general election. And finally #5…Simple, tally the numbers and whoever ends up with the most votes, WINS.

    I don’t know how you could enforce #1.

    The way Florida does. You can only vote in the GOP primary here if you were a registered Republican as of February 16th, 2016.

How about we put all of the names of people who want run for president on the same ballot regardless of political party, and we all get to pick which two people we’d like to run against each other? Everyone votes on the same day, say the second Tuesday in May. Some people would pick two people they would be OK with. Some people would vote for the person they want most and the person they think would be easiest to beat. It’s what happens now behind the scenes, but in the new scenario, we wouldn’t have to pretend it doesn’t. For every person who chooses a party ballot to create chaos, there’s an unaffiliated voter like me who looks for “safe candidate”. The one I’m OK with in that party and who will easily win my state’s primary. So I look at the other party’s ballot for a candidate I could live with, but who needs my vote to win. Cross-over voting isn’t always about mucking things up. A single, no party primary about 6 months before the election would address a lot of other issues, too, but this is just a comment, not an essay.

(1) Agreed. Yes, people can switch party affiliations to cause mischief, but it is better to have a closed primary or caucus to allow each party to determine its nominee.

(2) I don’t have a problem with a state deciding on how to allocate its delegates. Winner-takes-all maximizes a state’s influence at the convention.

(3) I agree. No early voting before election day, either. Also ban the everyone-votes-by-mail practice in some states.

(4) God, yes! Did we not learn from 2012?

(5) No runoff election process, please. That’s what the convention is for.

(6) Establish a process for the party to publically vet each candidate to ensure his eligibility. It’s an embarrassment that at least 3 of the initial 17 party candidates were obviously ineligible naturalized citizens, and 2 of the final 4 still are.

start with using a primary system not a caucus system.
or, since this topic usually comes up when the front man is unliked by authors, man up and drive on.

    Skookum in reply to dmacleo. | March 13, 2016 at 11:12 am

    The caucuses I’ve attended have been effective at keeping out nonparty affiliants, and have allowed for meaningful discussion of issues, in addition to the candidates, with your neighbors at the precinct level. I prefer a caucus to a primary. I think some believe a primary gives an idea as to how appealing a candidate will be to that state’s overall electorate, but that thinking is flawed, because primary electorates are biased.

Sammy Finkelman | March 13, 2016 at 11:36 am

The Founders didn’t offer much guidance, because they didn’t envision the party system in its present form,

The primary election system, does, however, resemble a bit what the original general election scheme was:

1) Each state has its own rules.

2) The states do not all vote on the same day.

3) You vote for Electors, not for a candidate. In the orimary system you vote for delegates, and only when they meet is a decision made.

Sammy Finkelman | March 13, 2016 at 11:38 am

The number one change that is needed is that we need to go back to ppre-campaign finance reform, and pre-1968 system.

It should be possible for candidates to drop it late.

And the primaries should be scattered over more dates.

It wasn’t perfect in 1968, but we were getting there.

Sammy Finkelman | March 13, 2016 at 11:39 am

A brokered convention is not something to be avoided. It may be the way to get a Condorcet choice.

Sammy Finkelman | March 13, 2016 at 11:41 am

In multi-candidate races, early voting can be a very bad thing. Even voting a few days earlier.

Rudloph Giuliani put a lot of votes on the bank in Floria in 2008.

and having people swear to vote for you, a la Ed Koch, and now, Donald Trump, is also very bad.

Sammy Finkelman | March 13, 2016 at 11:44 am

Re; runoff elections. There are voting systems where you don’t have to go to the polls twice. We need more of that, and we need sometimes candidates selected at a convention.

It was the candidate having the most delegates getting the nomination, with no new choices either, that gave us Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 – and maybe also George McGovern in 1972.

We need to not be held hostage to the forces of the political parties. It’s difficult to have the Constitution in effect and the states able to function independently when the political parties get their puppets installed as governors. The candidates are all more loyal to their parties than the people they are supposed to represent and serve. Instead, we have elected dictators telling us what will happen, how much money we will pay in taxes to support what they will jam down our throats. We have little say until this unsustainable gov collapses under it’s own weight.

DINORightMarie | March 13, 2016 at 1:06 pm

The open primary system that may states use, from my understanding, is a remnant of the Jim Crow/Civil Rights era primary system. I believe that open primaries should go. Related to that, the Motor-Voter federal legislation that Clinton signed into law allow same-day registration – in effect, open primaries. Those, IMHO, should ALL be repealed.

I will note that you mentioned a “brokered convention.” Please PLEASE watch and listen to this – there is a VAST distinction between a CONTESTED and a BROKERED convention. Ted Cruz plainly lays out the differences, and why the contested convention is not problematic. (Your post indicates they are one and the same, that’s why I bring this up.)

I agree there need to be reforms; however, it is up to both the two parties AND the states to do this. Selling the changes will be an uphill battle to both the states and the party-system status-quo cronies currently in control of both Dem and Repub Parties.

Wah, the GOPe hand picked candidate isn’t winning. Let’s change the system that gave us dole/Romney/McCain/bush all GOPe handmaidens.

Brady Postma | March 13, 2016 at 2:20 pm

What is the reaction to ranked voting for primaries? Even if primary voters indicate only a first and second choice, perhaps a third, that will go a long way towards organizing many candidates into clear frontrunners and either demonstrate or refute claims of a major voting faction divided among too many candidates. It would also reduce the Republican-vs-Republican viciousness, which clearly gives Democrats too much ammo for the general election, by allowing candidates to say, “Sure, vote for him. But vote for me, too.”

Remember that Lincoln was nominated by being everybody’s second choice.

What we ‘need’ is to expel Karl Rove and his elite pals from control roles in the GOP.

Enough with the anointments and mandates as to whom to vote for.

    It’s not that simple. I have always been anti-immigration and a tea party (fiscal) conservative. I have either disliked or hated the Bush’s, McCains, McConnells, etc.

    But here is the problem; while I agree with the far right in Congress and in challenging GOPe officeholders, they have shown to be inept general election campaigners.

    Akins, Mourbank, Buck, Angle, and others lacked the sophistication to avoid the landmines that the cultural left has deployed in the MSM. The slightest mis-step or strange comment and they were toast. All of them had their “Macaca” moment(s) and lost.

    Rove, on the other hand, in the last election put the GOP candidates through a rigorous vetting and training process. Buck was told to run for Congress, not Senate. Others were recruited. We didn’t get everyone we wanted BUT the GOP did far better than they did without him (some were so well trained to dodge landmines sounded like robots…eg. in Louisiana).

    Here is the problem with the far right: they are LOUSY tacticians and strategists (e.g. the debacle over shutting down government). I don’t like the GOPe but until such time as the far right can rise above yahoos and fundi’s setting off landmines…they ain’t gonna win the big elections.

    So yes, for now, we need Karl Rove (etc.).

good enough morgan | March 13, 2016 at 3:10 pm

Here’s a link to pre-Trump proposal aimed at shifting decisions to rank and file Republicans:

I would suggest a different approach.

1. AL states are WTA
2. All states use a Instant Runoff transferable ballot, and the candidate that gets to a majority wins.

GOPe: We need to change the rules again to make sure that uppity rank and file is put back in their place.

Got it. And maybe put Candy Crowley in charge of Debate Moderation.

To any commenter who is suggesting this is some recent reaction of mine to disappointment about the leading candidate in 2016, I suggest you take a look at this post of mine from four years ago on the subject of the problems with the primaries. Note, also, that it begins with this sentence: “I’ve been unhappy with the primary system for a long time.”

That was already true four years ago.

#’s 1 through 3 would require a Constitutional Amendment granting control of the election process to the federal government….which, of course, flies in the face of the entire concept of smaller government.

I do find it curious how many supposed conservatives are happy to try to exert control over others when it’s their own preferences being foisted onto the general public without their consent.

Seems to me that MOST people are totalitarian dictators at heart and the only real difference is the things they want to exercise control over. Two sides of the same coin.

I also note that, however good the intentions may be and however good the idea sounds on its surface, trying to exert top-down control over anything rarely ends well. The law of unintended consequences generally guarantees that the situation will be made worse, rather than better.

    Why couldn’t the RNC make those rules? Why would it take “a Constitutional Amendment granting control of the election process to the federal government”?

My problem is not too many candidates but no choice at all. My state votes in the primary in April. Maybe this year we will get to choose Trump vs Cruz or it could already be decided by then.

Some states get a huge selection and others get none. That needs to be fixed if we are updating the system.

…or a bigger Clown Car.

You cannot force states to register by party. And those who do usually set the registration rules the same as for general elections, must switch or declare more than 30 days ahead, but some allow same-day, and it is difficult to change that, too.

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The first states will not move. New Hampshire has it in the state constitution now. Not gonna happen, no matter how much we tut-tut over it.

– –

Regional primaries would make early money and name recognition even more of an influence, and few believe they lack enough now.

– –

Our system is imperfect, and so will any substitute be. Four relatively small states with cheap media going first at least gives the under-funded and lesser known candidates a fighting chance.

Funny, no one cared as much until Trump blew the whole thing apart.