How the Rules of the Game Chose This Year’s Nominees

06/24/2016 03:10 pm ET
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The Democratic and Republican Parties will both hold presidential nominating conventions in July. But this summer’s events promise to offer drama far beyond the televised pep rallies we have come to expect. Behind the scenes, party leaders will reconsider the rules used to select presidential candidates, which may substantially change future elections.

Major changes in party rules are rare. Typically, people in a position to make changes are reluctant to alter the very procedures that put them there. It takes an internal crisis to motivate a major overhaul.

The Republican Party is facing such a crisis this year. As Donald J. Trump, a candidate once denounced by the GOP establishment, secures the nomination, Republican leaders are considering changing the primary calendar and eliminating open primaries.

The Democrats are in less dire straits, but Senator Bernie Sanders has vigorously criticized party rules, such as the super delegate system, that insulate insiders like Hillary Clinton. Most recently, Mr. Sanders’s lawyers challenged the appointment of two Clinton supporters to chair the powerful DNC rules and platform committees.

As each party considers restricting or expanding nominating rights for everyday voters, they may also want to rethink the very procedures used to turn votes into seats. Had this year’s primary season used different rules, the outcome could have been very different.

To illustrate this, imagine a simplified case with three Republican candidates. Group A constitutes 35% of the Republican primary electorate, and includes people who prefer Senator Ted Cruz. Their second choice is Senator Marco Rubio; third is Donald Trump. Group B represents 25% of the population, and is made up of Rubio supporters, whose second choice is Cruz, and third is Trump. Members of Group C (40%) prefer Trump, then Cruz, then Rubio.

Most races in the U.S. employ plurality voting, meaning whichever candidate receives the most votes – regardless of whether or not they get a majority – wins the seat (or in this case, a state’s delegates). With plurality voting, we need not look beyond voters’ first choices: Mr. Trump wins our hypothetical election with 40% of the vote.

Now imagine that either Rubio or Cruz drops out, and Trump faces the remaining candidate head to head. Mr. Trump will lose (60% to 40%). A majority prefers either alternative. But under a plurality system with multiple candidates, a minority prevails.

This is a simplified example, but one not too far from reality. Election polls suggest the race in February looked much like this, albeit with more candidates in the running. Had the Republicans employed a different system, Mr. Trump would probably not be the party’s nominee.

One system designed to avoid selecting a candidate rejected by a majority of voters is known as the alternative vote. The UK Labour Party recently adopted this procedure to select their party leader. Each voter ranks candidates according to their preferences. If a candidate receives a majority of first place votes, they win. If not, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated, and their second place votes are reallocated to remaining candidates. This continues until a single candidate receives a majority.

How would this play out in our example? No candidate wins an outright majority in the first round, so the candidate with the fewest votes – in this case, Mr. Rubio with 25% – is eliminated. Ballots ranking Mr. Rubio first are then reallocated to the second placeholder, in this case is Mr. Cruz. Ted Cruz accumulates an outright majority and wins.

This system, also called instant run-off voting, is not unknown in the United States. Voters in Portland (ME), San Francisco, and St. Paul choose their mayors this way. And North Carolina tried it in a 2010 statewide election. There are drawbacks, of course. Paper ballots can take weeks to tally. Forget late night election coverage where a state’s delegates are committed within minutes of polls closing. And some voters may stay home if asked to rank a number of (possibly unknown) contenders, driving down already low primary voter turnout.

Another option is to give party officials more control. Ireland’s Republican Party, the Fianna Fáil, allows members of parliament to select their leader. In other parties, voters and party elite share power. Australia’s Labor Party gives legislators and party members equal influence.

To be sure, some may argue that it is unpatriotic to alter existing party rules. Doing so would drastically change American presidential nominations as we know them. But remember that our country’s founders never discussed candidate selection rules. In fact, parties are found nowhere in our Constitution.

In thinking about what rules they might want to replace, both parties would do well to consider the rule of unintended consequences. Which is the worse of two evils: a drawn-out primary season, or a less-than-ideal candidate chosen by a minority of voters?

Personalities and preferences alone cannot explain election outcomes. How these differences play out on the election stage depends on the rules of the game. Parties, choose your rules wisely.

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