The Democratic presidential primary has turned ugly. Partly this is the fault of the candidates. But much of the blame should be placed where it belongs: with the absurd and bewildering jigsaw puzzle of electoral rules and delegate processes in each state, and the preposterously long timeline of selection. This much is clear: The more Democratic voters learn about the primary process, the less they like it.
So, how can this broken process be fixed?
The first step in unifying the party should be for Democrats to eliminate their so-called "superdelegates" at this summer's convention. The idea of party bosses placing a thumb on the scale may have made some sense in 1984, but it is completely out of step with how today's voters view the process. Overwhelming majorities of voters in both parties believe the nominee should be whoever gets the most delegates. Period.
Party leaders believe they have a responsibility to ensure that an electorally malodorous Trump-like figure does not emerge as their nominee. However, the damage done to the legitimacy of the primary process is far greater than the risk of a calamitous nominee steering the party boat into an iceberg. Frayed legitimacy is particularly acute for the Democrats this year, as Hillary Clinton started the nominating contests with an enormous "lead" in superdelegates, which Sanders supporters rightly believe had at least some influence on perceptions of the race from the get-go. The fact that many news organizations still fail to differentiate between pledged and unpledged delegates only makes the problem worse.
And indeed, though Clinton would surely win even without her superdelegates, the race looks awfully different when you weed them out. After her New York victory, Clinton has won 21 contests to Sanders' 17. She has roughly 1,450 pledged delegates to his 1,200. This is a big deficit that Sanders is unlikely to overcome. But it's only with her 502 superdelegates, compared to Sanders' 38, that she jumps out to an insurmountable lead.
But it's not just superdelegates. Plain old pledged delegates are a big problem, too. While a national primary decided by the aggregate popular vote is unrealistic, both parties must eliminate the multi-stage delegate selection process, which creates major crises of legitimacy when delegate totals don't reflect a state's election results. In Wyoming, for instance, Sanders beat Clinton by double digits, and yet managed only a draw in delegates. Meanwhile the candidates are "delegate-hunting" in places like Nevada and Colorado, long after the voting concluded.
The Democrats should also address the confusing disparity in who can vote in each state's primary. While there are good arguments for both closed and open primaries, the party can't have it both ways. If Democrats can't imagine going on national TV and publicly arguing for excluding voters in a country where "independent" is a large and growing constituency, they should think very hard about whether any of their primaries should be operated in such a fashion.
And the process is much more broken than that. Another huge problem is that both parties use electoral and nominating rules in the primaries that cannot be found anywhere else in American politics. The problem is particularly acute in the caucuses conducted in many states by both parties. Caucuses are a sweet idea for a society where people have endless hours to fritter away during the workweek debating the finer points of representative democracy. In the America of 2016, however, caucuses have a profound downward effect on voter turnout, excluding anyone — particularly the poor and the marginalized — who would like to be able to simply press a button for their candidate as they can in every other type of election.
The Democrats must do more than just fix the election rules — in conjunction with their Republican counterparts, they should completely rethink the endless primary calendar. It is only April, and Americans are understandably exhausted by bitter primary fights that began in earnest last July. The United States is too large and complex a country to hold snap 30-day elections as in some parliamentary systems, but our presidential contests are like Midwestern winters — incredibly long tests of psychological endurance that no one particularly enjoys.
There is no reason that the debates couldn't start in January of the presidential year, with contests beginning in April and concluding by June. The parties, in conjunction with ratings-hungry cable networks, seem to believe that voters need dozens of primary debates. They do not. The debates stopped being interesting months ago, when the candidates, like an old married couple, ran out of new things to say to one another.
What's the fix? There are a number of interesting proposals out there, but one possible model would be to conduct primaries in 10 states at a time each week for five consecutive weeks beginning in May. Ideally, each of these Super Tuesdays (or even better, Saturdays) would feature a diverse set of contests, from small, predominantly rural states like Nebraska to large pivotal ones like Ohio. All would feature a roughly symmetrical proportion of available delegates, who would be bound to their candidate after the vote. Not only would this remove the absurdly outsized influence of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, it would offer voters in all states an equal opportunity to influence the direction of each race.
Ultimately, primary reforms should have four goals:
1. Make the process of choosing a candidate transparent and understandable by ordinary citizens with limited information about electoral rules.
2. Reflect the will of a plurality of voters in each primary.
3. Make ordinary voters feel like the outcome of the party primaries is the result of genuine competition rather than a "the party decides" style of nomination.
4. Reduce the aggregate burden of demands on American voters.
What is stopping us from enacting these reforms? Entrenched elites — from New Hampshire to the DNC — don't want their influence undermined by the people. Sorry, but contests for the presidency are too important to worry about the hurt feelings of party leaders or voters in tiny states puffed up from years of being treated like kingmakers. Failure to act will only reproduce the same level of bitterness and confusion four or eight years from now and continue to alienate ordinary citizens from critical democratic processes.