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The primaries are rigged

America is in the midst of a brutally honest primary season that lays bare what the elites of both parties think of their members — and of the country at large. Because honesty and political process are odd bedfellows, we are likely witnessing the last few primaries as we know them. By 2020, the system will likely reflect either the will of party leaders or the will of party members, with little pretense of trying to serve both.


Voters cast their ballots at the polling place at Fairfax Circle Baptist Church during Super Tuesday voting March 1, 2016 in Fairfax, United States.
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The Democrats designed a top-down system to provide an illusion of inclusiveness while maintaining the power of the party elite. The Democratic National Committee mandated that each state allocate its delegates proportionally among candidates who receive at least 15 percent of the votes. It also, however, designated roughly 15 percent of its total delegates as "superdelegates," party stalwarts who place a thumb on the scale in favor of establishment candidates.

This structure mimics the Democrats' approach to governance. As a coalition of the nation's super-elite, wealthy, professional classes and the nation's poorest, least educated classes, Democratic governance typically promotes elite opinion allegedly "for the good of" the poor, though with the curious side effect of perpetuating and exacerbating poverty while locking in elite power. Many, but not all, Democrats prefer to keep this elitism quiet. Cass Sunstein, former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House, wrote an entire book advocating regulations that "nudge" people to alter their behavior "for their own good."



Unfortunately for the DNC, their superdelegates are proving decisive in Hillary Clinton's inevitable nomination. While the Democratic elite is likely to prevail, its detached paternalism is not sitting well with disenfranchised progressives who are "feeling the Bern." The superdelegates are thus revealing truths that the DNC would far prefer to keep quiet.

The Republicans look even worse. The Republican National Committee's decentralized system allows each state party to write distinct delegate allocation rules. While the RNC reserved no superdelegates, it preserved significant elite power in the form of intricate and complex convention rules. Should no candidate secure a majority on the first ballot — an outcome that appears increasingly likely — only those capable of navigating the complexity can possibly succeed.


This approach is characteristic of Republican governance — though again, inconsistent with the party's self-image. Republicans often talk a good game about decentralized authority but rarely simplify government; the Code of Federal Regulations grew by nearly 20,000 pages (about 14 percent) during the Bush years. Republicans primaries suffer from the same incoherence and inconsistency as our overly complicated regulatory codes: Their goals are vague and their methods embody no theory capable of reasonable resolution.

The designers of both primary systems seem unaware that primaries are not classic American elections to fill an office; their purpose is to select a slate of delegates who then function as part of a large nominating committee. If anything, they are far closer to Parliamentary elections than to the winner-take-all-systems to which Americans are accustomed. Yet America's political elite has created the illusion of democracy to serve the not-necessarily-democratic goal of selecting convention delegates and party nominees.


The Democrats erred by holding elections in which establishment and upstart candidates compete on unequal terms — a likely sore point among Democratic voters still seething over losing an election despite winning the popular vote sixteen years ago. The Republicans failed to note that when electing a slate rather than an individual, winner-takes-all makes little sense. A state allocating 100 delegates after a 60-40 race should split its convention slate 60-40, not 100-0. There is an entire economic field devoted to the study of voting systems. The current Republican primary system violates all of its key findings.

Finally, primaries "open" to independents and members of the opposing party make no sense. The national Democratic and Republican parties are coalitions of factions and interest groups oriented around competing views of the world, society, and governance. Those leading the coalitions are right to seek candidates who reflect those views. A nomination process that party stalwarts dominate, a series of state conventions, or a closed proportional primary in which only pre-registered party members vote, would all serve that goal. Primaries open to non-members, winner-take-all votes, or systems designed to look open while actually remaining closed are prescriptions for disaster.

American voters — Democrats and Republicans alike — are experiencing that disaster. Because "disaster" is the only fair way to describe a system capable of elevating candidates as widely disliked as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to positions of dominance.


Taken together, it is hard to see the 2020 election arriving without significant changes to both parties' primaries. The Democrats have designed a reasonable system that reflects the party's true values — though not the image it would like to convey to its docile lower-class voting base, who might not remain docile if it understood the truth. The Republicans, having designed an unreasonable system that reveals one of its own dark secrets, are watching it explode in their faces. Neither party seems poised to offer the country the new leadership it craves — and needs.

The voters deserve better.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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