We now have our presumptive presidential nominees for the two main parties, and millions of Americans are ecstatic. Hillary Clinton is the first woman ever nominated by a major party, and Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign has pulled many new or previously disaffected voters into the democratic process.
These facts are remarkable and should be cause for celebration in the world’s oldest democracy. Yet while millions celebrate, other millions of Americans are mired in anger, denial and depression heading into the general election.
Why so many unhappy voters? Two reasons: the candidates themselves and the rules that led to their winning.
First, lots of voters view Trump and Clinton as flawed candidates. This is borne out by their unfavorable poll ratings, 62 percent and 55 percent, respectively (according to realclearpolitics.com averages for June 15), the worst ever for major party nominees. Intensity of opinion is not captured by these data, and plenty of voters have passionately expressed their dislike for one or both nominees. However, Trump’s higher negative rating reflects that many voters and scores of leading Republicans, including the 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, are appalled by his bigoted, divisive language and ignorance of complex policy issues.
Secondly, the belief by many voters that the nomination processes is somehow unfair has led to questions about the legitimacy of the outcomes. Parties must balance competing goals of controlling their nominations, while trying to attract additional supporters by giving them a stake in the process. With three or more candidates running, it’s impossible to construct a voting procedure that fairly reflects all individual voter preferences. Therefore, a “dictator” (a person, a committee, or a set of rules) often influences the outcome in a way that makes the process seem undemocratic.
Both parties utilize a version of a “dictator” with their unpledged “super delegates,” although Democrats rely more heavily on them — a key reason why Bernie Sanders’ supporters have complained. Republicans use an additional “dictator” with winner-take-all primaries, rather than more closely tying voter preferences to the outcome with proportionality rules for awarding pledged delegates like the Democrats employ. By distributing delegates to several candidates, proportional primaries give more voters some skin in the game, but they often fail to produce a majority winner, especially as the numbers of candidates increase.
To make the nominating processes fairer, the parties could adopt rules that would more likely yield nominees who are reasonably acceptable to most voters. Two reforms would help: a) ranked choice/instant runoff voting, and b) approval voting.
In the former, voters rank all candidates from most to least preferred. Computerized runoff elections then eliminate least-preferred candidates by transferring their supporters’ preferences to remaining candidates until a majority winner emerges.
With approval voting, voters check any and all candidates they prefer. The candidate with the most “approvals” is the winner. No nominating system is perfect, but adopting these reforms would enhance the legitimacy of election outcomes, encourage more citizen participation, and minimize voter frustration.
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Rob Baker, Ph.D., teaches political science at Wittenberg University.