Preferences, Primaries, and Voting: A Reconsideration

As people went to the polls on election, they were faced with two options, to disastrous results. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are seen unfavorably by about 55.3% and 57.8% of Americans, respectively. Secretary Clinton and President-Elect Donald Trump were two of the most disliked candidates in modern American politics. How did we get here? At first glance, this is very perplexing given that the people nominated them in the first place in decisive primary elections. However, a closer looks shows that something else is probably going on here – something that requires a thorough analysis.

The fact that the general public dislikes the candidates at such high levels might indicate that our electoral system is broken and failing to do its job. The current thought is that the purpose of a primary is to select nominees who reflect the preferences of those in the party. This is an ethical dilemma that comes to the root of our political philosophy, which professes that the people are the sovereign and our leaders are accountable to us. When our preferences are being so egregiously represented by the choices available to us on the ballot, something is clearly amiss. This indicates at least three considerations we must make to ensure that our elections properly reflect the collective voice of the people.

First, we need to look at rank voting and other innovative methods that more fully reflect the preferences of the electorate. Rather than having people cast a vote for only one person, voters would have the chance to rank their preferences, creating a fuller representation of the voice of the public. The most promising system seems to be the instant-runoff style, where “ballots are initially counted for each elector’s top choice. If a candidate secures more than half of these votes, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate in last place is eliminated and removed from consideration. The top remaining choices on all the ballots are then counted again. This process repeats until one candidate is the top remaining choice of a majority of the voters.”

One advantage is that the vote wouldn’t be so easily split between candidates with like-minded supporters. For example, this year, people whose first choice is Gary Johnson but prefer Secretary Clinton to Trump could rank Johnson first, Clinton second, and Trump third, without enabling a Trump victory like they would now. Countries like Australia, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, and Canada use instant runoff voting to at least a degree, with good results. The voters of Maine voted on a ballot initiative to implement ranked-choice voting. Our own Duke Student Government utilizes rank voting. Clearly, this is something to consider.

Second, we must reevaluate primary eligibility requirements and how primaries are conducted in general. In a recent Gallup poll, it was found that about 42 percent of Americans self-identify as independents. However, 24 states utilize completely closed primaries, and five more states feature Republican primaries that are closed. The rest are a mixed of semi-open and open. The system as it stands opens us up to all kinds of problems. Some partisans reject this proposal, but one recent poll found that 63 percent of Democrats would prefer an open system. Existing restrictions at least deserve a second look.

We must also revisit the existence of the Democrats’ superdelegates, whose purpose remains unclear. The relic of a bizarre 1980 Democratic primary battle, superdelegates at least pose the potential to not only skew perceived advantage in the race but also create undemocratic outcomes. Even though they did not swing the 2016 Democratic primary, it was a little unsettling that Secretary Clinton had a 45:1 superdelegate advantage over Senator Bernie Sanders back in November 2015. The 712 superdelegates make up under a third of the total needed for nomination, but their need for their existence is still unclear. For what ought to be a decision by the people collectively, superdelegates are at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous to democracy.

Lastly, we must encourage political participation and voter education. In our most recent presidential primary cycle, 57.6 million people turned out to vote. However, 129,085,410 people turned out to vote for president in the 2012 general election. What that meant this year is that only 9 percent of Americans voted for Mr. Trump in the primaries, but 100 percent of voters saw him on the ballot. Part of the solution involves opening up primaries, but driving up voter participation in primary elections ensures that our choices on the general election ballot more closely match the preferences of the electorate.

Something about our voting system is just off. And this isn’t all – we also face issues with voter education, voter registration, voter turnout, gerrymandering, and many others. And since the stakes are so high, deciding who gets the power to impact millions of people both here and abroad, this is an issue that must be brought front and center as soon as the dust settles in this election cycle. Status quo bias is no excuse to avoid these topics, especially when we consider how dangerous the our current system has become. So on Tuesday, we voted; but now, we must take a step back, look at where we’ve been, and finally ask ourselves those essential questions: how did we get here? Where will we go?

This piece is adapted from a piece published on the Duke Political Review, on November 7, 2016.