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Double Take: Party On, Rules

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Double Take: Two writers. Two views. One issue.

Should our political parties change their institutional rules as a result of this election?

This is What Madison Meant

In light of the contentious Republican nomination process—and its result, a nominee whom many Republicans find objectionable—some have argued that a larger role for party elites would increase the quality of party nominees. With a divided field, Trump was able to win a plurality of the vote even as it appeared that his vote ceiling was short of a majority.Yet strengthening party elites is not the solution to this problem, and in fact risks making the system worse by further enabling or emboldening small groups of passionate individuals.

In today’s Republican Party, Trump’s nomination seems to be a problem of such small groups—in other words, of factions. While some within the party are excited about the nomination, many Republicans view the nomination of Trump as deleterious to the well-being of the party as a whole. Trump’s nomination has divided the party in a way that no other recent nomination has previously.

This problem of the influence of groups with interests contrary to those of the greater population is not unique to our time. James Madison makes the argument in Federalist 10 that such factions are inevitable where liberty is present. Without destroying the liberty of individuals to freely act, the only way to limit the ability of factions, Madison argues, is to expand the republic to the point at which it becomes more difficult for such cohorts to capture positions of power and increases the coordination problems associated with organizing large groups.

However, contrary to Madison’s advice of broadening the scope, some individuals concerned about the consequences extreme nominations on the functioning of American democracy have advocated for a reduction of the scope of conflict and a greater role of parties and party elites in the electoral and nomination process.These arguments suggest that stronger parties reduce the likelihood of the nomination of extreme politicians because parties are interested in holding office. Theoretically this pragmatic motivation should lead them to support more moderate, and thus electable, candidates.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to recognize that party leaders are not selected from a set of individuals who are indifferent ideologues and that individuals do not change their preferences just because they hold a particular position. While party leaders are more likely to support more moderate candidates, those preferences are sincere rather than strategic and are likely to change. As party leadership changes  so too does the ideological preferences of the party. Nor are party organizations immune to takeovers by groups aiming to support ideologically similar candidates.

As such, strengthening parties risks shifting the battleground of the nomination from a larger field with many actors to a much smaller space where the capture of the party organization could have significant consequences. It would actually make it less likely that Trump would be an anomaly. Failure to follow Madison’s counsel would result in a system where minority factions are more likely to control the process. The reality is that strengthening the hand of party leadership has the potential to cause more damage to the democratic system than good.

Hans Hassell is an Assistant Professor of American Politics at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA.

Undemocratic Rules Were Meant to Be Broken

It’s hard to view the nomination process for President as sensible after this year. The Republicans have nominated a candidate widely disliked even within his own party. And while the Democratic candidate is much more accepted, a significant faction of her party still believes that process was unfair as well.

But we shouldn’t blame the parties entirely. They have to work with a system that is both undemocratic and ill-suited to finding broadly acceptable candidates. I would advocate reforms to use proportionality to allocate delegates, and then let those delegate deliberate at a contested convention.

The current system fails to represent voters for two reasons. First, it over-values early states. And second, it uses rules that disadvantage candidates with a small following, such as thresholds for viability or winner-take-all allocation of delegates. Together, these features quite deliberately help winnow the list of candidates down to one.

But candidates who are winnowed often lose because they are the first choice of few, but they may be the second choice of many. And that is who we should seek to nominate, not someone loved by a plurality but hated by many others.

But while it would be nice to get rid of the sequence that advantages the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire over the rest of us, that’s not going to happen. Those states won’t budge. But we could still choose voting rules that are more democratic. In this case, list proportional representation would be ideal, with the lowest possible threshold for success. So the 99 members the Florida delegation to the RNC, if a candidate won ten percent of the vote, they’d get ten delegates. In 2016, Donald Trump won about 46 percent of the vote in Florida and was awarded all 99 delegates. This is what I mean when I say the current system is grossly undemocratic.

Delegates vs Votes

The current system exaggerates the success of the eventual winner. Those with shares of delegates above the 45-degree line got proportionally more delegates than votes, as of the point where the race was settled. (After that point, eventual winners tend to do even better.) Data compiled by Martin Cohen.

Another option sometimes advanced is instant-runoff voting. Voters rank candidates, and those who choose unpopular candidates have their votes reallocated. This lets people vote for minor candidates, but candidates who do poorly early on would still drop out after early contests, so it doesn’t work well with our sequential primaries.

Some states already use proportional representation, but it’s not enough. One candidate always ends up with a majority of delegates. In a truly proportional system, that would still sometimes happen, but not when voters are significantly fragmented. If no candidate has a majority, the delegates sent to the convention would deliberate and decide.

And that would be a feature, not a bug. A lot of people might view a contested convention as undemocratic, but of course it is no more undemocratic than a legislature. In fact, most parties around the world use deliberative conventions to choose party leaders.

The advantage of representative democracy is that the delegates can simultaneously think about representation, electability, and broad acceptability. They can choose a president and a vice president at the same time, balancing different factions of the party. They can do all the things that a party should do.

Such a change would not have given Bernie Sanders the nomination in 2016, but it might have encouraged more alternatives to run in the first place. The Democrats already use proportional representation, but high thresholds still discourage minor candidates from running. The chance to make their case at the convention might keep them in.

This is the choice I am proposing: (1) The status quo, which uses grossly undemocratic voting rules, or (2) a much more democratic rule, proportionality, with the added benefit of delegates evaluating candidates after the campaign is over.

Hans Noel is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University. He is the author of Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America, and a co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.


Hans Hassell is an Assistant Professor of American Politics at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA.

Hans Noel is an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.