Reforming Voting and Primary Voter Participation Rules

The second step in reforming the presidential primary system is to make sure that every American who wish to participate in a presidential primary for a major political party is able to do so under rules that are comprehensive and universal so as to ensure fairness and equality for each vote cast.

In the past two decades, much debate and conversation have arisen regarding the rules surrounding presidential primary voting. In states that hold presidential primaries as opposed to caucuses, the type of primary that is held can vary depending on the state: Some states hold open primaries in which voters of any party registration, including independents, may vote in a presidential primary for one political party. Some states hold closed primaries in which only voters registered with a political party may vote in the presidential primary for that political party. Some states hold semi-closed primaries in which voters registered with a political party may only vote in the presidential primary for that party, however registered independents may choose to participate in any one of the presidential primaries, regardless of party. The difference in primary system nationwide across different states creates an imbalance and a disadvantage, particularly for many independent voters and voters registered with a non-mainstream political party, many of whom wish to participate in the primary process but often have trouble doing so depending on the state they reside in.

In recent years, some states and youth activists around the country have also begun a push to allow 17 year old citizens to participate and vote in the presidential primary if they turn 18 by the time of the general election that year as a way to increase and encourage youth turnout and involvement in choosing a presidential nominee for a major party. The youth activism surrounding this push has encouraged fifteen states thus far to grant all or most 17 year olds the right to participate in a primary though not all states have followed through. This has created an inequity for young voters nationwide, many of whom also want to participate during the primary process when many candidates represent different wings of different parties, each with ideas specific to their candidacy, in addition to the general election when the field of presidential candidates have been narrowed down to one candidate for each party.

Some policy suggestions I have for lawmakers that would make the primary process more comprehensive nationwide and would encourage youth turnout in presidential primary elections include:

  • Encourage political parties nationwide, including the Republican and Democratic National Committees to establish a uniform type of primary to be used in all 57 states, districts, and territories to select a presidential nominee. This may include the adoption of an open primary system, a closed primary system, or a semi-closed primary system that may be revised or revisited every four years. This would maximize a party’s ability to gauge active and engaged voters for their presidential primary in each state and would streamline the voting process and rules to make sure that every vote is treated fairly without disadvantage across every region of the country.
  • Encourage every state, district, and territory participating in a presidential primary to adopt voting rules that would allow voters to register for or switch their registration to participate in that party’s presidential primary on the same day. This would allow citizens that were previously registered as an independent, as a member of a third party, or as a member of another mainstream political party to engage in voting for a candidate of their choice without being restricted by their prior party registration or their lack of a political party affiliation.
  • Allowing 17 year old citizens nationwide who will turn 18 by the time of the general election to vote in their state’s presidential primary. This would ensure that the voices of young voters can be heard at the ballot box not only during the general election, but also during the primary election season when many of the policy platforms and ideas are being discussed by a wide variety of candidates with many different emphases and ideas that are pertinent to American youth.


Reforming Delegate Selection and Allocation Rules

The third step in reforming the presidential primary system is by reforming the way in which delegates for the Democratic (DNC) and Republican National Conventions(RNC) are chosen and allocated nationwide throughout the primary process.

A registered member of the Democratic or Republican Party can sign up to express an interest in becoming a delegate at the DNC or RNC by filling out a form that allows them to pledge support for a particular presidential candidate running in that party’s primary. After each primary or caucus is complete, candidates may be awarded a certain number of pledged delegates from the state based upon a proportionality system or a winner-take-all system. The state then goes through the pool of people who have pledged their support for various candidates and selects them to represent a group of voters who voted in support of a particular candidate in the state’s primary at the DNC or RNC.

On the Democratic side, the role of a particular kind of unpledged delegates known as “superdelegates” have come under much scrutiny, especially after the 2016 Democratic Primary in which an overwhelming majority favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention. These superdelegates are often high ranking party leaders who hold some form of statewide or federal political office that can vote for any candidate of their choosing without needing to pledge their support for a particular candidate before the convention. The lack of restrictions and the unpledged nature of the votes of superdelegates has raised skepticism and concern in the minds of primary voters who have questioned the way in which they undermine the supposed democratic nature of the presidential primary process. This became pertinent almost immediately during the 2016 election season when Sen. Bernie Sanders won in a landslide victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary but received an equal number of delegate votes due to the impact of superdelegates, igniting a debate regarding favoritism in the Democratic Party in the primary process for their establishment candidate.

On the Republican side, superdelegates are non-existent and therefore do not have a controversial influence on the selection of their presidential nominee. However, the lack of consistency in the delegate allocation rules for the Republican presidential primaries and the complexity of its system has caused some in the party to call for reform. With some states using a proportional allocation system while others use a winner-take-all system, the way in which a Republican presidential nominee is selected has caused some votes in winner-take-all states to not translate into any delegate votes for their candidate, while scattered votes in states like Iowa have caused delegates to be awarded to over eight candidates, ultimately creating a nationwide disproportion in how individual votes translate to delegate votes.

In both instances in both parties, the way in which delegates are selected and allocated have become so complex and so inconsistent that they no longer reflect the will of the primary voters in each state and no longer provide a democratic process for selecting a presidential nominee for a major party.

Some policy suggestions I have for lawmakers that would make the process of selecting and allocating delegates for party conventions more comprehensive and more democratic include:

  • Establishing a new way of determining the number of delegates allocated to each primary state under a new formula suggested to party leaders which includes:
    • A base allocation of delegates in each state which awards 10 delegates for every state, district, and territory with a primary contest.
    • An electoral allocation which awards one delegate for every electoral college vote the state possesses in the upcoming election, as well as one additional delegate for  every pledged electoral college vote won by the party’s candidate in each state in the previous presidential election.
    • A congressional allocation which awards one delegate for every Senator/Representative elected to Congress representing each party, including Independents who caucus with that party.
    • A statewide allocation which awards one delegate for every state legislator elected to the state legislature representing each party.
    • Unpledged delegates specifically for the Democratic National Convention that are selected in the same way they have been in the past, with their influence and voting power regulated under the Unity Commission’s reform in 2018.
    • An additional 20% of pledged delegates selected based on a new national primary element to the presidential primary process.

Under these suggestions to party leaders, the 2020 Democratic National Convention would yield a total of 7,009 delegates, while the 2020 Republican National Convention would yield a total of 6,623 delegates. The increase in number of delegates and the new way of allocating delegates to each state not only makes each delegate’s vote more proportional, but it also diversifies the state’s delegation by incorporating local, state, and federal election results and demographics into the delegate calculation, creating a pool of indirect electors that better represents the statewide and national electorate.

  • Establish proportional allocation rules for delegates in each primary state and establish a universal threshold of 5% of the popular vote to receive a delegate vote. This would ensure that the way in which delegates are selected and allocated are proportional to the way the people in each state voted in their primary. It would also establish a 5% threshold instead of the 15% currently used by the DNC and the 0-20% thresholds used by the RNC (depending on the state.) This would level the playing field for all presidential candidates vying for a party’s presidential nomination rather than favoring the more well-funded and well-known candidates in each race.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my National Primary proposal and a process of reforming presidential primary debates.