Accounting For Elections

Whatever happened to the competitive Presidential primary elections? Just a few weeks ago, we were buzzing with anticipation over the possibility of contested Democratic and Republican party conventions. One candidate even predicted that political passions might boil over into street violence!

But with the surrender of Ted Cruz and John Kasich to Donald Trump, and with Hillary Clinton’s smashing victory over Bernie Sanders in New York State, the intra-party aggressiveness of the campaigns appeared to fade away. Indeed, with passion subsiding into pragmatism, cooler heads are now emerging to prepare for the Summer and Fall political campaigns.

So, now that we’re all gravitating back towards rational thinking, it may be an opportune time to reflect on the controversial methods that the Democratic and Republican parties have created to account for the preferences of their primary voters. As we’ve learned during the past few months, neither party simply counts the votes that have been earned by each candidate, and anoints the candidate with the most votes as the winner of its Presidential nomination.

Instead, each party requires a candidate to receive more than 50% of the delegate votes from its state affiliates in order to earn its nomination. And each state affiliate is free to determine the process by which the preferences of its citizens are translated into delegate votes.

And what processes have been adopted by the political affiliates of the states? Well, some employ primaries. Others utilize caucuses. And yet others simply rely on their own officials to select their delegates.

And what if no candidate receives more than 50% of these delegate votes? Then all of the primary, caucus, and party official preferences are tossed aside at the convention, and the delegates simply keep voting until they select a nominee. That process last occurred at the Republican Presidential convention in 1976, and many speculated that it could occur again this year.

In fact, it was this very possibility — i.e. the possibility that no Republican candidate might receive more than 50% of the delegate votes before this summer’s party convention — that appeared to generate the most concern among many Republicans. After all, they feared, wouldn’t this result in the “tossing aside” of citizen votes? And wouldn’t such an action be undemocratic, and thus un-American, in nature?

Yes, perhaps it would be undemocratic … but it wouldn’t be un-American at all. In fact, this very “tossing aside of votes” process is a central feature of the United States Constitution.

You see, America’s Founding Fathers didn’t anticipate the emergence of political parties. Instead, many of them dreaded the emergence of such parties out of concern that citizens might prioritize “what is good for the party” over “what is good for the country.” And they certainly did not want the federal government to simply award the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most votes from the citizenry.

So they created a system that permits numerous candidates, preferably with no particular party affiliation, to vie for state delegate votes. And they granted the states a fair amount of flexibility to determine how citizens register for voting, how votes are cast, and how voting results are tabulated into delegate votes.

Then, according to the Constitution, when the state delegates meet in the Electoral College to cast their votes, the candidate who receives more than 50% of the votes becomes the President of the United States. And what if no candidate receives that many votes? Then the votes of the citizens are tossed aside, and the members of Congress in the House of Representatives simply keep voting until they elect the President.

Can you see the similarity between the contemporary Party nomination process and the Constitutional national election system? In essence, they function in the same manner. And most strikingly, they both presume that the votes of the citizenry should be tossed aside whenever no single candidate receives more than 50% of all votes.

It’s a strikingly undemocratic approach to accounting for the will of the people, isn’t it? But it’s important to keep its Constitutionality in mind when we hear people criticize its current inclusion in the nomination processes of our political parties. After all, even though it seems inappropriate to contemplate tossing aside the votes of the citizenry, this is the very process that the Founders of our Republic chose to write into our national Constitution.