Sunday, April 10, 2016

The sliding scale of primary-season democracy

The system used by the political parties in the U.S. to choose their presidential nominees has never been completely democratic. Parties are private organizations. They don't have to be democratic. For most of this country's history, the big-wigs of the Democratic Party and Republican Party effectively just chose the nominee.

In the late-20th Century things started to change. Both parties added democratic elements to their nominee-choosing process. As the process looked more and more like an election, the public's perception and expectations about the process also changed. The public began to believe that the process was (and is) an election. Which makes sense. In primary states, the primary is conducted by a secret ballot vote, held in the same polling place used in the general election. In some jurisdictions there's even a real (i.e. non-presidential primary) election going on at the same time, with those candidates chosen on the same ballot as one used for the presidential primary.

But at its heart, the method used by the parties today to choose their delegate is not really democratic. The candidate with the most votes doesn't necessarily win. The race is collect a majority of delegates, not votes. On the democratic side there are superdelegates, who have no obligation to represent the voters. And on both side the rules for dividing the proportionate share of delegates when each state votes varies considerably from state to state and sometime does not reflect how people voted in the primary of caucus. The delegates themselves might switch their votes if there are multiple ballots and, for a lot of states, nothing obligates them to reflect the voters from their state when they vote in ballots after the first one.

Because the process looks like a normal election, there will be outcries about the lack of democracy whenever the contest is close enough for its undemocratic elements to matter. Those outcries put pressure on the powers-that-be to further democratize the process.

In other words, while the process is not a democracy, it is more democratic now than it used to be. And it is likely to get even more democratic in the future. Not that it does anyone whose candidate is losing under the current rules any good right now.