Restoring democracy to the primary process

Photo by Gage Skidmore

by John Perilli

As the Republican presidential primary wears on towards the end of its third month, many voters are asking themselves some difficult questions. Does it really matter that I didn’t vote for Newt Gingrich if he’s just going to keep floating along on Super PAC money? Even though Ron Paul is still on the ballot, is it even worth voting for him at this point?

Here’s my question: Are primaries actually democratic anymore?

Gingrich and Paul still remain on the ballot despite each having fewer than 150 delegates. The race has devolved into a four-way slugfest instead of a straightforward race to the finish between frontrunners Mitt Romney (562 delegates) and Rick Santorum (249 delegates), and voters’ enthusiasm for the candidates is dropping to dangerously low levels.

Fortunately for Gingrich and Paul, there isn’t a pressing reason to quit. Both have received strong support from Super PACs. Gingrich is backed mainly by the Winning Our Future, which has spent over $16 million on his behalf. Paul has been supported by Endorse Liberty, which has raised nearly $4 million to keep him in the race. Combined, these two groups have outspent the largest Democratic Super PAC, the House Majority PAC, by a margin of 11 to 1. And as long as these Super PACs have money flowing in to buy advertising, Gingrich and Paul will keep going. They will continue to sap votes from the top two candidates, as they did in Washington, North Dakota, and Oklahoma and as they are likely to do in Louisiana. The entire process will be drawn out even further, and Romney and Santorum will suffer more damage.

How is this at all representative of what Republican voters want?

Primaries were initially championed at the beginning of the 20th century by Progressive reformers as a more democratic alternative to the “smoke-filled rooms” of national nominating conventions. The primary is now the most widely used method of nominating a candidate.

I propose another reform, intended to make the primaries more democratic for both parties. The Republicans aren’t the only party susceptible to the current primary problem – Democrats too could potentially hit this pitfall in 2016. It is time for hard limits to enter the primary process.

Both major parties should institute binding delegate thresholds to winnow well-funded but unpopular candidates out of the nomination race.

Each party would set up a staggered set of delegate requirements spaced throughout the primary season, and if candidates didn’t meet these requirements, they would be eliminated. For example, Republican presidential nominees under a threshold system would need to gain 100 delegates by the end of the vote count on Super Tuesday and have 200 by the beginning of April. Under this rule, Paul would be out of the election, and Gingrich would be on the ropes.

How could such a system be enforced given the autonomy of states in the primary process? The answer lies with the national party committees, which have a vested interest in keeping their primary races competitive. In 2008, the close contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gave Obama a surge of momentum heading into the general election. Currently, it does not look like Romney or Santorum will enjoy such a boost. The national committees must then be ready to penalize states that keep eliminated candidates on the ballot and make sure voters are given a clear choice between the two most popular candidates when the primaries enter the critical stretch in April and May. Not only will this be better for whomever is nominated, it will be better for democracy.

It’s time for individual primary votes to matter again. Candidates like Gingrich and Paul should not be allowed to keep their campaigns going without popular support. If both Republicans and Democrats enact delegate thresholds, the disproportionate influence of Super PAC money will be checked and primary elections will again become engines of democracy.


Photo by Gage Skidmore

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