Delegates Unbound

America’s No-Good Primary System

Words, Words, Words

Democracy in America has never seemed so spectacular as now, when we’re knee deep in this many-monthed primary campaign whose topsy-turviness has cast Ted Cruz as the Republican establishment’s great last hope and placed a socialist senator in serious competition with the Clintons. Our European neighbors must be thoroughly tickled. But how democratic are these ballyhooed elections anyway, replete as they are with their mutinous delegates and their conspiring “super” kin?

At present, both the Democratic and Republicans Parties are beset with accusations of sanctimony and sabotage, and not undeservedly. Bernie Sanders, who has swept eight of the previous nine primaries, and his supporters inveigh against the so-called superdelegates—party bigwigs who vote as they choose. Truly super, since they possess votes worth 10,000 times more than the ordinary, undecorated citizen. 469 of these special individuals have already sworn fealty to Hillary Clinton. Sanders can muster up only a paltry 31. That Sanders could obliterate Clinton in New Hampshire by 22 points in February, yet still emerge with no advantage in delegate count due to support from the party elite, is the clearest proof of the system’s inadequacy.

Overall, superdelegates will account for 15 percent of the delegate total at the Democratic National Convention. I’ll mention in passing that in Iran, all candidates for president must similarly garner the approval of the Guardian Council, which is composed of six highly esteemed and well-credentialed worthies. “That’s much more undemocratic,” you may protest. Sure, but only seven times as much.

Another quirk of our democracy is the delightfully quaint caucus system, which requires voters to take a few hours out of their evenings and argue the merits of their preferred candidates in a room full of neighbors, rather than merely casting their vote and being done with the matter. Only the most motivated voters seem to turn up to these lengthy shows of Rousseauian democracy, but even more byzantine procedures can nullify even the votes of even these most dedicated of partisans.

In the Democratic Iowa caucuses, perhaps the most important, votes are discarded if a candidate does not meet a 15 percent threshold. A number of ties this year were even decided by coin toss. For a party that vigorously campaigns against the vote-suppressing laws that have cropped up in some Republican-led states, the Democrats' retention of caucuses remains a bizarre outcrop from the party-boss days that essentially disenfranchises entire classes of voters arbitrarily. Caucuses should go the way of superdelegates—straight to the dustbin of history.

In spite of what I will lovingly call America’s “institutional eccentricities,” most electoral processes manage to select the candidate whom the actual majority voted for. That’s because massive margins of victory are difficult to squirrel away behind superdelegate disdain or caucus shenanigans. But in tightly-contested races, such as today’s, the anti-democratic pull of these idiosyncrasies can come to dominate, leaving the outcome to either dumb luck or campaign savviness with superficial technicalities. That’s how our hopelessly antiquated, but constitutionally enshrined, Electoral College gave us George Bush over Al Gore, who won the popular vote.

Unlike the Electoral College, reformation of the party nominating process would not require a constitutional amendment. Of course, possibility of reform is a far cry from its realization, as any non-comatose political observer would tell you. According to Brookings, there are at least 153 actors—when you take into account all the state parties and legislatures—who split control over our current primary process and “absent some sort of meltdown, a more rational system is not likely any time soon.”

And that’s where Donald Trump might amount to some good after all. “Our Republican system is absolutely rigged. It’s a phony deal,” the self-styled master dealmaker angrily called out on Tuesday. He’s absolutely right, for once: Republican leaders are all but openly scheming to steal the nomination from Trump if he does not win an absolute majority of delegates, though he is almost certain to win a commanding plurality.

As we’ve seen, in a contested convention, an increasing number of delegates become “unbound” to their state’s primary and caucus results with each round, presumably spoiling the chances of Trump in favor of Ted Cruz or even an unnamed white knight. This of course would make a mockery of the many millions of Republican primary voters. Democracy ought to be about giving people want they want—even if it’s someone as distasteful as Trump. Leave the dramatic reinventions to the 2016 autopsy instead.


Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a former Crimson editorial executive, is an applied math concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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