The presidential primary system is fundamentally undemocratic


You thought America was a democracy? Think again.

The presidential election, for starters, obviously isn’t democratic: The president is elected by an electoral college with just 538 voters, none of whom have any choice as to whom they’re allowed to vote for. In such a world the winner of the popular vote can end up losing the election. Just ask Al Gore.

It turns out that the primaries, which we’re going through right now, are just as bad. Consider this: It’s highly likely that more people support Bernie Sanders than support Donald Trump, and yet Sanders is way behind in the Democratic primaries, while Trump is way ahead.

In national polls, Trump has the support of about 35% of Republicans. That’s also his share of the primary vote to date: He’s received about 4.3 million votes in all, or 35.8% of the total.

But votes don’t determine the winner in the primaries—convention delegates do. And Trump has 440 of them already. That’s 44.5% of the total awarded so far.

On the Democratic side, Sanders has the support of about 40% of the party. And that’s been borne out in the primaries, where he’s received 3,292,102 votes so far—that’s 40% of the 8,233,138 votes cast.

And yet despite receiving 40% of the total vote, Sanders has managed to get just 32% of the total delegates. That’s mostly because of the Democratic “superdelegates,” who are overwhelmingly pledged to Clinton: She has 467 of them, while Sanders has only 26. Those superdelegate votes aren’t set in stone: They can change their mind right up until the last minute.

Whatever you want to call this, it isn’t democracy. America has more Democrats than Republicans, and Sanders’s support among Democrats is greater than Trump’s among Republicans: he has a larger slice of a bigger pie. But somehow we seem set to propel Trump to the Republican nomination, making him the standard-bearer for the American right, while relegating Sanders to the status of a historical footnote.

Even worse, this crooked system has a non-negligible chance of giving Donald Trump the presidency.

Nearly all of the blame here lies with the parties, rather than with the American Constitution. Which is crazy, because there’s no good reason for the parties to choose the presidential candidates in the first place; indeed, there’s no particular reason why each party should have only one candidate running in the general election.

There are any number of systems that would be much more democratic and effective than the current horribly complex and unfair system of primaries. Why do the parties get to choose the presidential candidates in the first place? Why should each party only have one candidate running in the general election? There’s no good reason for any of these things, except to take power away from the people and to give it to the parties. In the current climate, where millions of Americans deeply mistrust both political parties, that’s not a good look. A direct election, where the president was chosen by all Americans from a short list of candidates, would be much more democratic and much less open to electoral shenanigans.

If voters in a single election simply ranked all the candidates in order of preference, with the winner would be decided by single transferable vote, then that would create a system where Trump would be very likely to be kicked out of the running before Sanders was. Which is what should happen, in a country where Sanders has more support than Trump.

So next time you rub your eyes and wonder how on earth this racist nutjob is going to become the Republican presidential candidate, remind yourself that it’s not democracy which put him in that position. Rather, it’s the lack of it.

Correction: An earlier graphic accompanying this article mistakenly transposed its depictions of Trump delegates and Trump votes.

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