The Primary Process Is Killing Democracy

primary elections
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / WhoWhatWhy (CC BY-SA 2.0) See complete attribution below.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

While Iowa Democrats, with an assist from the national party, have rightfully been criticized for botching an election about as badly as possible — short of lighting ballot boxes on fire — they may have done the country a favor. Their train wreck of a caucus is just more evidence of a broader problem: the way Americans pick their presidential nominees — and by extension their presidents — is a disaster in urgent need of reform.

We wish we could have said it’s “a disaster waiting to happen,” i.e., that there is still time to fix things. But that train left the station four years ago. The 2016 election alone should have made people realize that the system is broken beyond repair.

After all, 2016 was the year the Democrats put up the second least popular candidate to ever run for the presidency. That wasn’t the end of it, though, because their nominee, Hillary Clinton, managed to get beat by Trump, who was the absolutely least popular presidential candidate in history.

That begs the question: What kind of system forces voters to choose between two nominees they don’t like?

The answer is: one that needs to be burned to the ground and then rebuilt from scratch.

Obviously, it’s easy to be against something — especially if it is as ill-conceived as the way Americans nominate presidential candidates. The real challenge is coming up with a better alternative.

So we sat down to figure out how we would fix the selection process and get better candidates. This is not an exhaustive list, and we left out some big things that should go without saying, like scrapping the two-party system, instituting automatic voter registration, repealing all voter suppression efforts, etc.

In addition, some of our suggestions could easily be implemented while others are “pie-in-the-sky” ideas.

There are several reasons why the process is broken; for example, the primary schedule, party rules, how the media covers these races, and the inability/unwillingness of the nation’s leaders to get money out of politics.

A look at this year’s Democratic field reveals why these are problems: at one point, there were 28 candidates in the race. While some may have felt that the field was too crowded, that notion seems silly. Too crowded for whom? The reporters who didn’t want to cover 28 different health care plans? But the purpose of a primary is not to make their job easier, it’s to pick the best person to lead the country.  

That’s why diversity is good. Even if a candidate doesn’t get the nomination, voters benefit from hearing about different ideas and experiences.

However, 18 of the 28 dropped out before the Iowa caucuses earlier this month (while one joined the race). Which means that, after having spent months or even years preparing for this moment, nearly two-thirds of the candidates quit before a single vote was cast.

That just makes no sense. Even taking into account that some of the people running were simply angling for a cabinet post, promoting book sales, or wanted the visibility for another campaign, the dropout rate is ridiculously high.

If we want to fix the system, we have to look at why so many of them left the race before it started.  

They dropped out because they didn’t have money, did poorly in the polls, and got no “earned media” exposure, which includes participation in the Democratic debates. It’s easy to see how that is a vicious cycle.

If you don’t have the money to get your name out there (most people would be hard-pressed to name half of the Democrats who ran, even though that list includes senators, governors, former cabinet secretaries, and high-ranking military officials), then you won’t do well in polling and the media won’t cover your campaign. As a result, you don’t make the debates, which means people will never hear of you and won’t donate to your campaign.

The way to interrupt this cycle is to eliminate some of these factors — or at least eliminate them as much as possible.

The first step is to take most of the money out of the process. This year, billions of dollars will be spent on the election. Most of it will come from deep-pocketed donors and companies, who then have an outsized influence on the decisions “their” candidate makes when in office.

So let’s start by turning the funding side back to the people. We’d do that by limiting campaign contributions to $50. In addition, every American age 10 or older will get a “democracy voucher” of $10 which they can give to any eligible candidate (or split up among multiple candidates).

Why would we let children participate? Easy. Kids have the most at stake, so they should get a say. In addition, the democracy vouchers, a version of which is already being used in some municipalities, will get them involved in the political process early, and hopefully reduce some of the apathy toward politics many Americans are feeling today.

Perhaps most importantly, it would also force candidates to come up with a specific agenda for young people, because they would command a significant chunk of all of the campaign contributions that are available.

These vouchers would also give Americans a sense of investment in the candidate of their choice and get them to participate in the process.

It’s very unlikely that all of these vouchers would be used, but even if they are, that’s only about $3 billion per election cycle, and it doesn’t come almost exclusively from rich people and corporations.

It also means that any national candidate who can get one percent of voters behind them will have $30 million to campaign with.

To be eligible for these donations, however, they would have to meet some requirements. To prevent any college fraternity from putting up a candidate and spending the democracy vouchers on beer, there would be a minimum number of signatures a candidate would have to submit to qualify. Nothing outrageous but still a high hurdle — probably somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000. That’s not going to be easy for an unknown candidate, but, in the age of social media, it is an obstacle that can be overcome by anybody who has good ideas.

In addition, in order to be eligible, candidates have to submit all of their financial information and the results of a full physical and mental examination conducted by independent doctors. While a mental illness or a serious health problem that a candidate tries to hide would not disqualify them from running, the voters should be aware of them. In addition, the public deserves to know whether a candidate has been willing to pay their fair share of taxes or dodged that responsibility with creative accounting.

Candidates would also have to swear that the information they provide is complete and accurate, and violators could go to jail. In addition, if it is ever determined that they used any portion of the donations to benefit themselves or their family financially, they’d have to pay back every penny they received.

Now you might say that even the $30 million from the example above isn’t a lot of money when you have to compete with a Michael Bloomberg, who can spend hundreds of millions on TV ads.

Good point. However, Bloomberg would only be allowed to self-fund his candidacy with $60 — the $50 he can legally give and his $10 democracy voucher, because our system will prohibit rich candidates from pouring millions of dollars into their own campaign.

Another reason that somebody like Bloomberg could not spend that much money on TV advertisements is that there would be no more paid TV advertisements. That’s right, in our system, Americans would no longer be bombarded with ads each election.

If you think that’s not possible in a major democracy then you’d be wrong. In Germany, parties and candidates are not allowed to buy TV ads. Instead, free two-minute slots are granted to the different parties ahead of the evening news.

That not only eliminates an advantage of rich candidates but it also stops giving the media a massive financial stake in elections — because a lot of those billions being spent flow right into the pockets of the millionaires and billionaires who own the big news outlets.

Granted, this part of the system has a downside, because it will mean there is less money to cover the elections. But a lot of that coverage nowadays is meaningless BS, so we’re going to cut back on that as well.

One way to do that is by eliminating polls and, therefore, the reporting on polls. “Well, how am I supposed to know who is doing well six months before the first vote is cast?” you may ask. The answer is simple: You are not supposed to know because how well candidates do in a poll should have nothing to do with how you feel about them.

Americans should back the candidate who speaks to them and has come up with a thoughtful platform that addresses their needs and concerns instead of following poll results like sheep. We have to get some of this counterproductive groupthink regarding “frontrunners” and “electability” out of the political conversation.

If you want to know which candidates are doing well, you could go to the FEC website, which would have an up-to-the-minute count of how many democracy vouchers have been given to each candidate.

To address the problem of hurting real news outlets in the process, maybe there could be some sort of federal grant program that allows local newspapers to hire dedicated campaign reporters who cover the issues and not the “horse race.” They could then partner with bigger news outlets, which would actually end up benefiting good journalism and not hurting it.

Speaking of local news… Earlier, we wrote that most people would be hard-pressed to name even half of the Democrats who ran in the primaries. That is not the case for the people in Iowa and New Hampshire, who are the only ones who get an opportunity to really get to know the candidates.

In a recent editorial, we made the case for them to lose their “first in the nation” status and that will also be the case in our system. In fact, we’re going to do away with the entire primary schedule, which is extremely harmful to democracy.

The early contests are given an outsized importance, especially by the media. If you don’t do well there, your candidacy is doomed. But why should it matter to a progressive Latina in New Mexico how a white, conservative male farmer in Iowa votes? It shouldn’t, of course, yet each year, that farmer’s vote is much more important than the vote of the Latina.

In the system we envision, there is one national primary, which is held on a Sunday so as many people as possible can vote (we would also make Election Day a national holiday). People vote using ranked choice, and they do it with pen and paper. Humans, not machines, will do the counting, and who cares if the results aren’t in for prime-time news? In our system, it’s not about getting the count fast but getting it right.

Parties play no role in making the rules or conducting the actual balloting because they are clearly not able to handle that responsibility. This year, the Democrats are making a particular mess of things and it seems all but assured that the eventual nominee will lead a party against Trump that is deeply fractured.

In our system, the two nominees will each get $50 million and that’s all the money they will be able to spend. There will be no political action committees and no outside groups can run ads.

In short, elections become battles of ideas, not money.

Finally, it would be nice to have some younger candidates. The Founding Fathers felt that a president would need some life experience to be an effective leader, and set a minimum age of 35. That’s reasonable.

However, it also makes sense to set an upper limit, maybe 66, i.e., the age when full retirement benefits kick in. There are practical and philosophical reasons for such a change.

Somebody now in their 70s grew up when the country was still segregated, the role of women was completely different, homosexuality was illegal, and the environment wasn’t a concern. That’s not to say that they didn’t play their part in making things better, but it’s unlikely that they can fully grasp all of those changes in their entirety. The same is true for advances in science and technology. There simply comes an age when it becomes difficult to keep up with a changing world.

In addition, it makes sense that somebody who still has half of their life ahead of them will make different decisions about the future than somebody who is much older. This is especially true for a looming threat like climate change. If you know that the full effects of global warming are likely to hit you personally, there is a good chance that you will treat the issue differently.

Most importantly, there have only been three presidents older than 66 when they were first sworn in:

    • William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office;
    • Ronald Reagan, whose mental faculties clearly declined as president and who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years after the end of his second term;
    • Trump, whose mental faculties may never have been all that good to begin with, but who is also visibly deteriorating, and sometimes has trouble even getting a sentence out.

But it’s not just the mental aspect. If you look at the before-and-after pictures of recent presidents, you can see how much they aged in office. If you take the job seriously — i.e., if you don’t just play golf, hold rallies, and watch cable news — it is absolutely grueling.

That’s not to say that it cannot be done by an older person, just that it hasn’t happened yet.

The suggestions above may not be perfect. Some may even be dumb. But just about anything is better than the current system. That is why, at the very least, we hope to start a debate on how to devise a fair process that allows presidential candidates to be chosen by informed citizens — and not the media, party bosses, a bunch of white people in two states, or the person with the fattest wallet.


The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Benjamin Franklin caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Democratic logo (Democrats / wikimedia), and background (USCapitol / Flickr).


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from

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