The Broken U.S. Presidential Primary System
November 28, 2011
The majority of willing voters have been unable to participate in previous US presidential primary elections. Politicians often drop out early, ending the race before the later-voting states count their votes. No one doubts that having an earlier vote grants states huge influence, but the question is, why? Why do we do it this way? Why does Guam get to vote before California? Why do the Virgin Islands go before New York state? Why do we call this country a Democracy, and then use a flagrantly undemocratic system to elect our highest-ranking public official?
In most elections, momentum (the “Mo”) is an enormous factor. In a staggered election (where different groups of people vote at different times), a candidate who wins the first two or three rounds of voting is often declared the winner based on that fact alone. The other candidates concede defeat, drop out, and end the election – before the other groups of people ever get a chance to vote!
We can observe this effect on the span of single days, when polls for our national general election close earlier in eastern time zones and later on the West Coast, rendering those later votes of less consequence. This phenomenon applied out over weeks and months is proportionately more impactful.
Not every vote is counted, nor is every vote counted equally. Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first to vote in almost every primary, but the only argument supporting this practice is tradition. Who made Iowa and New Hampshire the boss? Why do the 50,000 voters in Des Moines have more of a say in who becomes president than the 21,000,000+ citizens of greater Los Angeles?
Though the two political parties have no foundation in any constitution, and were themselves unelected to their dominant position in American politics, they disenfranchise a majority of voters in crucial elections.
In previous elections, states have attempted to move their primary dates forward. In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist moved Florida’s election day forward, in violation of the rules of the established political parties (who, unlike the State of Florida, operate without constitutional mandate). In response, the political parties revoked Floridians’ votes, cementing their disenfranchisement. The same happened in Michigan. I am an American citizen who lives in neither state, and I believe that an assault on liberty anywhere is a threat to liberty everywhere, and I find this behavior to be unacceptable.
A majority of American voters were willing but unable to participate in the presidential primary elections of early 2008 – this includes voters in Michigan and Florida, but also the voters who were unable to vote for candidates like John Edwards (who dropped out in January) because their primaries occurred later. If this isn’t a massive, complete electoral failure, then I don’t know what is.
e-Democracy Case Study: Iceland
Iceland is showing the world how Democracy will work in the coming decades. Iceland’s economy broke down when a tiny number of private bankers issued loans (to foreign investors) equivalent to many times the nation’s GDP. When Iceland defaulted on its unmanageably huge amount of debt, these bankers turned to the public, whose credit rating was used as collateral.
People should never be able to collateralize the credit rating of other people without consent, and without a fair profit sharing agreement with the person whose credit rating is being collateralized.
The Icelandic bankers were on track to sign every citizen of Iceland up for payments equivalent to $150 per month for the next 15 years in order to pay off the debt, before a massive political uprising toppled the government, allowing the people to regain control of their country.
Instead of caving in to those who try to privatize profit but socialize risk, Icelanders used the internet to establish a new constitution, which is currently under review. Iceland has a long way to go, but rest assured that whatever happens, you won’t hear about it on mainstream American news.
Changing the way leaders are elected will change the way they govern, because the power to elect, or not, is life and death to a politician. Iceland is going beyond online elections – they rewrote their entire constitution, using the internet to manage public input. This system eliminates middlemen, and adds to the efficiency of the communication of relevant parties. Those parties are still free to make mistakes or have successes on their own, but online democracy is a better alternative in any scenario.
A Bigger Problem: the Electoral College
The electoral college distributes votes unevenly throughout our country (infographic), which is undemocratic. If you live in a populated state, your electoral influence is minimized. If you live in Wyoming, congratulations – no single voter in America has more raw influence over the outcome of the presidential election than you. We need democracy in this country. Representative democracy can be a good thing, but not when it comes to electing the president. The less middlemen complicating this already tenebrous process, the better.
The electoral college was originally intended to do something much different. The “middlemen” electors were actually supposed to play a more hands-on role, and deal with their constituents directly. Electors were to listen closely to their voters, and then apply what they heard to their later vote for president. Today, electors are nameless, anonymous entities who pledge to either vote for one candidate or another long before the election. Electors are figureheads, justified only by tradition, who stand against logic, rationality, and Democracy.
The extent to which we do not follow the popular vote is the extent to which our nation is not a Democracy. In 2000, Gore won the national popular vote by over 400,000 votes, but the supreme court chose Bush. No single event more dramatically changed the trajectory of the next decade, nor highlighted the extent to which the US is not a Democracy. In many ways, we are defined by our highest office, and in the US, the election for that office is not purely Democratic. Now that pure Democracy is technologically feasible, we must ask ourselves – do we really want Democracy?
The primary system could and should be entirely online by 2016, but fixing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment to be ratified by those same states which it serves to benefit. Barring a complete re-write of our constitution (a la Iceland), don’t expect to outlive the electoral college.
Incorporating the internet into our election process serves the core principles of Democracy. Indeed, Democracy seems incomplete without the internet. Whether it’s a primary or general election, it’s about keeping it simple: one person, one vote.
I’d rather face the dangers of too much Democracy than too little.
Surprisingly, the solution to this dilemma is astoundingly simple. Americans Elect is an organization closing in on achieving exactly what I’ve been calling for for the better part of a decade – a national primary day, held online. Americans Elect has been approved by over a dozen states, more will approve it soon, and it has real momentum. Americans Elect is putting a candidate on the ballot, but the interesting part is exactly how they’re choosing this candidate. It’s the first internet-based primary in our nation’s history.
It’s not complicated. One-person-one-vote rarely is. Distrust anyone who tells you that democracy is, or should be, complicated. We need a simple national primary day, where we all vote at the same time, and online voting needs to be an option for every American.
For those concerned about the security of an online election, I first point to the confusion and chaos that surrounded the general election of 2000. All that’s needed to rig an election (IRL) is to mysteriously shut down precincts in key neighborhoods in key states. Throw in butterfly ballots, hanging chads, recounts, lawsuits, controversial supreme court rulings which decide the outcome of presidential elections, and, well, you get the idea. It’s not hard to improve on today’s system.
It’s easier to track and undo foul play online. HTTPS is a powerful thing. The destiny of democracy is on the internet. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s close, and it by far beats our current system.
Further, internet-based democracy has the power to dramatically increase voter turnout. Even weather has a measurable effect on voter turnout for IRL elections, but this effect is null for e-democracy. Vote by mail has increased voter turnout in Oregon, which since 1998, has been the first state to vote exclusively by mail. As inefficient as mail can be, e-democracy is efficient. Americans Elect, or a website like it, would be a better method in all of our elections at every level, and we should use this instead of the electoral college.
Americans Elect is a first, wise, and brave step toward an entirely internet-based electoral system, and it’s crucial that we continue down this path, to enable the most fair and equal representation of electoral power possible. While it’s naive to think that internet-based elections will solve all of our problems, it’s obvious that an internet-based electoral process is better than our broken, current system.
Topic of next post: Now that pure Democracy is quickly becoming technologically feasible, we must ask ourselves – do we really want pure Democracy?