Editor’s Note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Donald Trump has argued that the Republican primary system is 'rigged'
Donna Brazile: Last thing we need is for Trump to exploit voter distrust by making allegations of rigged convention
Talking about the flaws in democracy is nothing new, as Churchill’s 1947 quote demonstrates. So maybe it’s no surprise to hear all the campaign talk right now about the nominating process for the two major parties. And what’s being said isn’t good. Donald Trump, in particular, has made headlines for claiming that the Republican nomination process is “a rigged system, it’s a crooked system, it’s 100% crooked.”
Setting aside the usual Trump hyperbole, is the Republican nominating system “rigged?” In fact, is the Democrats’ system “rigged?”
I have a plain answer: “No.” Our nominating process does not use loaded dice. In fact, it is about the most honest and open system for selecting a nation’s top leader you could find.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t also flawed. It is. While our two major parties have evolved from smoke-filled rooms to transparency and voter participation in the nominating process, they are not democratic organizations – the courts have ruled that political parties are free “associations” of individuals and they are loathe to interfere in the rules they form, or how they select their leaders. In other words, a party’s nominating methods are its own business.
But the real weakness of the democracy we practice – including in the primaries – is that we do not compel citizens to vote. As a result, our nominees for president are chosen by a minority of a minority. The most recent study by Pew Research, for example, found “39% [of Americans] call themselves independents, 32% identify as Democrats and 23% as Republicans.” In other words, both the Democrats and Republican Parties are minority parties. There is no specific party for the largest group, namely Independents.
So the parties are a minority, and so are the number of voters in the population who actually vote in primaries. Fivethirtyeight, the site created by Nate Silver, the election-data whiz who nailed the 2012 vote, noted that since 2008 in Democratic primaries, “the average turnout in primary states as a share of the Voting Eligible Population has fallen from 20 percent to 14 percent. In caucus states, it’s fallen more modestly, from 4.4 percent to 3.7 percent.”
That means that for all the talk of the people’s voice being heard, even under an ideal system of allocating delegates, the reality is our next president might be picked by only a fraction of the voting population in any given state. Why? Because the system – especially in caucus states – tends to reflect the will of the more involved, activist voters. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is a matter of debate, and usually depends upon how much your particular candidate benefits or is hurt by the present system.
On top of this, many contests are closed, meaning many independents don’t get a chance to vote unless they register with one of the two main parties. Clearly, if we’re going to talk about the majority democratic will, we need to address this fundamental issue next cycle. That might not be as straightforward as it seems, because while some will call for independents to be allowed to vote in the primaries so they can have their voice heard, there is also a strong argument that party members should choose their own party’s nominee. So, if an independent wants to be part of the party’s voting, they could at least join the party.
But while there is little doubt that we need to include more Americans in our nominating system, recent criticism of current selection methods misses the mark. The difficulties and confusion being encountered are the result of the candidates’ inability to understand and comprehend the rules as they are developed by state parties, often following state laws.
So, accepting that the primary system falls short in getting a large proportion of voters involved, let’s look at the Republican system specifically. Are the Republican rules rigged? You decide.
With one exception, the Republican rules for both their primaries and caucuses have been in place for a year, as Chairman Reince Priebus said. It is also the responsibility of each candidate to familiarize themselves and their staffs and organization with the rules from the Republican National Committee and the various states. After all, if you want to be leader of the free world, this won’t be the last time you’re going to encounter something complicated.
Colorado, which Trump is complaining most loudly about, did change from a primary to a caucus eight months ago. Now, state governments run primaries, while caucuses are run by the party. Voters can participate in both systems. Yet while this certainly does affect how a candidate organizes and campaigns, the rules are the same for all the candidates – all of them had equal knowledge of the change and eight months to prepare and contest.
Despite this, Trump all but ignored Colorado. He skipped the Colorado state convention where some delegates were chosen. There were seven conventions at the district level, and Trump did not file delegates to run in one of them. He also did not inform his voters of the names of his delegates in two other districts. In short, Trump abandoned Colorado. He didn’t even really try.
The same can be said of Wyoming, where Trump reportedly filed delegates to compete in only half of the twelve delegate districts. In Washington State, meanwhile, Trump reportedly informed potential delegates of the deadline for filing two days late. To top it all, according to a tweet from Tim Miller, former communications manager to Jeb Bush, Trump’s team erroneously sent the information not to his supporters in Washington, but to supporters in Washington, D.C.
Even if we look at the big picture, though, Trump seems to be a beneficiary of the system, not a victim. Fivethirtyeight notes that Trump has won only about 37 percent of the total vote, averaged, in all his primaries. Yet, he has 45 percent of all the delegates awarded to date. As a result, Trump has 22 percent more delegates than his share of the popular vote suggests he should have. So, if Trump becomes the nominee, he will have won only about a third of the votes of his party’s voters. And up until New York, which might change things, he has yet to win a majority of the votes in any contest. How is that “rigged” or even unfair, at least to Trump?
There is reason enough for Americans to lose some faith in what has been a dysfunctional Congress. But while the primary system has its own kind of dysfunction, it is not of the nature that Donald Trump claims. The last thing we need is for him to exploit voter distrust by making allegations of a rigged convention as a cover for his campaign’s poor management in contesting for delegates.
That is certainly not how to make America greater.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.