The Way America Picks Presidential Nominees Is Dumb

The U.S. has a primary system that prioritizes parties ahead of voters

Ranked-choice voting would be simpler and more inclusive than the primary system the United States uses now. Credit: Paul Sancya/AP

The South Carolina and Nevada primaries are approaching and Super Tuesday — so named during the U.S. bicentennial year to make the party primary process sound like a meritocratic sporting event — looms. At this point in the election season, it seems we can draw at least one conclusion: The major party primaries are the biggest scam foisted on American democracy since the founders cooked up the Electoral College.

The primaries cement the importance of the two major political parties in the American system. This importance is unearned and, aside from the right of assembly, has no place in the U.S. Constitution. The idea that the most qualified or effective president and federal representatives would be those chosen by either the Democrats or Republicans to go head-to-head in the general election is a sham. Democrats and Republicans may have dramatic differences, but they have colluded to bamboozle the country. The primary process is Byzantine, undemocratic, un-American and ineffective.

The biggest problem with the primary system is that it prioritizes parties ahead of voters. In a Boston Globe explainer, Evan Horowitz laments that primary voters don't even have real authority to choose their party nominees. "Voters have no constitutional right to decide the winner." Which is true, but misses the larger point, which is that the Constitution spells out no roles for parties to be involved in the first place.

A political party is nothing more than a private club with exceedingly low standards for entry. It's harder for an unskilled practitioner to join a bowling league than it is for a vegan communist to join the GOP in cattle country.

The modern primary has all the trappings of a true, public election because, over the course of the last 100 years, government at all levels has become involved in administering the polls, monitoring against corruption and footing much of the costs. The whole system is a mishmash with local governments and local parties making their own rules. The government had good intentions for getting involved. It mostly wants to give the party rank and file some say in who gets nominated so that the party elites don't do all the picking in private rooms, trading barrels of oil and precious gems for favors.

But the resulting system is absurd. In the 11 states with closed primaries — where only registered Democrats can vote for Democrats, and only registered Republicans for Republicans — political independents and third-party members are shut out of the system. The Independent Voter Network estimates that between 2000 and 2013, New Jersey taxpayers paid $100 million to administer primary elections. So unaffiliated voters in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are paying for elections in which they are not even allowed a say.

But even registered party members can be disenfranchised by this goofy system. On the Democratic side, the nominee is chosen by delegates who go to the party convention and generally vote the will of the primary voters. There are 4,051 delegates who are supposed to operate that way. But there are also 713 special party insiders who get "superdelegate" status and can vote however they choose. Before the first primary vote was even cast, estimates the Cook Political Report, Hillary Clinton had already amassed support from half of the superdelegates, putting Bernie Sanders at an eight percentage point deficit in the delegate count. Because of the superdelegates, it is likely that Hillary Clinton collected as many delegate votes in New Hampshire as Sanders did, despite losing by 22 percentage points in the popular vote. (It's important to note that superdelegates can change their support at any time, and at least some are expected to switch their support to Sanders if he continues to do well in the primaries.)

On the Republican side, some states have screwy rules that thwart the popular vote. In Georgia, a candidate has to get at least 20 percent of the vote to get any delegates at all; if the field is still large when Georgians vote on March 1st, a lot of Republican choices might be left on the floor like so many hanging chads. Ohio, Arizona and Florida are winner-take-all states, which is great news if you're local boy Jeb! Bush, looking for a way back into the race, but doesn't reflect the will of Republican voters at all.

Oh, and if the Republicans get to their convention and nobody has amassed more than 50 percent of the delegates? Then all the delegates can do whatever they want, and the nominee will be selected the old-fashioned way, by party insiders.

The solution to party corruption in the 20th century was to turn party primaries into something resembling public elections. Over time, the public seems to have bought into the notion that the primaries and the general are so integrated that the only viable candidates for president (or major federal office) are a Democrat, a Republican and maybe an eccentric billionaire.

But it doesn't have to be this way. We could remove all public financing and support from the parties and let them deal with their workings on their own if we replaced our system with something like ranked-choice voting — in which you're given a slate of candidates that you rank one to five, in order of preference. Why choose between Trump and Cruz when what you really mean is, "I want Trump most and Cruz second most?" It's honest. It's simple. It works.

Some folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Memphis even tested it on 2012 general-election voters and found that actual voter preferences were better reflected in the results, even if Barack Obama still beat Mitt Romney by about the same margin.

Ranked-choice voting: It's simple. It's more inclusive. It makes more sense than this nonsense we're watching right now.