How to Fix the Democratic Primary System
The 2020 Democratic primary began last week with the Iowa caucuses. It was—to put it mildly—an absolute mess. The results did not come out until a week later. And even then, there were inconsistencies in the reported state delegate counts and vote tallies between more than 100 precincts’ accounting sheets and that of the Iowa State Democratic Party, according to a report by Upshot analysts at the New York Times. These inconsistencies are not significant enough to point to foul play or electoral interference, but nonetheless put the fickle nature of the caucus system on full display. This mess came following months of sustained criticism against the Iowa Caucus structure and its disproportionate and seemingly manufactured importance during primary season, for a number of reasons.
For one, the state of Iowa is significantly whiter than the national Democratic electorate, which explains the disproportionately high turnout for Mayor Pete Buttigieg relative to his standings in the rest of the country. This factors into the larger issue of the patently undemocratic nature of the caucus mechanism in general. Furthermore, people cannot vote early in caucuses and must be free to stand in a high school gym for hours on a weeknight. This prevents parents, caretakers, and people who work at night from being able to participate in the election.
For the next primary, the Democratic Party needs to change things in order to have a more democratic process that represents its national coalition more fully and more fairly—this may rehabilitate the Party’s ability to retain its voter base during a time of internal factioning. I offer three easy changes.
1. Immediately get rid of all caucuses.
There are only a few caucuses left in the Democratic primary, but the few remaining states should immediately switch over to a primary. This would accomplish a couple of things. First, it would allow more people to be a part of the process, and be more inclusive of those who can only vote through mail-in votes and early voting. Second, it would get rid of the confusing “state delegate equivalent” middle step of caucuses that, in Iowa specifically, does not result in the person who got the most votes getting the most delegates. This is inherently undemocratic. All state delegates should be allocated proportionally to the state-wide results of the election.
2. Change the order of the states.
Right now, Democratic candidates are pouring thousands of dollars and millions of man hours into Iowa, a state that Trump won by over nine points. It would be most efficient to put that money and organization into swing states.
The national Democratic party should have the first four states be the state in each census designated region—Midwest, West, South, and Northeast—won by the smallest margin in the previous presidential election. This year, the states would be Nevada (West), Florida (South), New Hampshire (Northeast), and Michigan (Midwest). This would ensure that for the first day of voting, there is a diverse base of people represented throughout the whole country. It would also let Democrats set up large organizations in the primaries that can roll over and be strategically important during the general election.
It would also ensure that voters in the most important states are seeing the Democratic candidates in person and are being contacted by the party over a year before the general election. The party would also be collecting crucial voter identification information for the general election. This would guarantee that the party is invested in down ballot races in these states. In Florida and Michigan, at least one state legislature chamber per state can be flipped by Democrats winning just four seats. Democrats winning control of at least one chamber would let them have power in drawing congressional district maps, which would help prevent gerrymandering by a Republican controlled state legislature. By having the Democratic party invest in swing states for over a year before the general election, the party would be better equipped to transition to the general election.
3. De-stagger the primary process.
The primary should not be done over the course of five months, from February through June, and should instead be condensed into three months. This is based on the assumption that the general election will be started by the incumbent in the the year before the general. While our current president announced his re-election campaign the day after his inauguration, most incumbents start during the summer the year before the general election. For example, President Barack Obama started his re-election campaign in June 2011.
To have the best chance in the general election, Democrats should shorten their primary season and have it start in January and go through March, ensuring that there would not be a national primary during which all states vote on the same day. This is important because the winner of a national primary would be the candidate with the most money and highest name recognition. None of the last three Democratic presidents—President Carter, President Clinton, and President Obama—would have won the primary if there had been a national primary. All three were able to start from low-level name identification and initially lower polling positions to strong personal and policy introductions by developing efficient organizations and strategies throughout the campaign trail. If there was a national primary, individuals like Joe Biden or Michael Bloomberg would be the nominee because they have the name identification and the money to introduce themselves to all 50 states at once.
Most significantly, to allow less well-known candidates the ability to build up organizations and name recognition, there should be multiple rounds of voting. Specifically, there should be four rounds of voting with three weeks between each election. Shortening the primary process would keep the incumbent from having such an incredible advantage going into the general election.
The 2020 primary is already in progress, and has illuminated all of the problems with the outdated system. If the president is re-elected, it is incredibly important to change our primary calendar and process for 2024 to give the Democratic candidate all the advantages the party can. The country is changing and continuing to have the primary process done the same way is an insult to the ever diversifying coalition that makes up the party.
Anna Hickey is a second-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She is the chief editorial columnist for the Agora and publishes a weekly column on electoral politics.
Image courtesy Phil Roeder, Creative Commons