Friday, March 28, 2008

Wonk the (Primary) Vote

OK, I fully admit up front that this is kind of geeky, but the spousal unit and I spent dinner discussing voting procedures to try to make the Democratic primaries more representative and providing more opportunities to more kinds of candidates. What else do two former political science graduate students discuss? And it was really interesting! Well, maybe if you were there it would have been interesting. Anyway, here's a modestly wonky proposal to try to bring some order to the primaries.

First, what are the structural/organizational problems of the current primaries? They are too dissimilar in nature (caucus vs. primary, open vs. closed, multi-stage vs. single vote, etc.). They over represent small states, older voters, and caucuses. They are not equally open to participation. They are decidedly stacked against non-establishment candidates with the Super Tuesday blow out. They tend to clump regionally which distorts perspectives. They tend to clump chronologically which causes rushes of contests followed by long lulls. The lack of order encourages larger, well funded states to shove to the front of the line. Voters in states that vote late in the primary usually (though not this year) have no functional say in who gets chosen.

What are ways to address these various issues in a way that will still result in a fair, transparent, democratic election, giving people enough time to view and judge candidates?
  1. Close the contests. Unless you are a registered Democrat, you cannot vote. On this, I am adamant. This is choosing our party's nominee. Republicans can stick to their own sorry group of losers. Independents can shit or get off the pot. You want to pick the Dem candidate? Commit to the party.
  2. Allow day of election party registration. But we don't want to suppress turnout, so make it easy to become a Democrat. This one is trickier because of the rules different states have about voter registration. My opinion is get 'em in the door and have them put their name on the dotted line. Then hit them up for donations.
  3. Establish electoral blocks of states that are distributed geographically and are created based on their Electoral College weight. There are 538 total Electoral College votes. The smallest indivisible EC voting unit is California, with 55 EC votes. Place Califonia as a voting block on its own, then take the remaining 483 and divide them into eight or nine other blocks. Divided by 8 means blocks of about 60 EC votes (there would be a little variation) while nine voting blocks gives you about 54 C votes per, both comparable to California. The idea is to make each round of voting worth approximately the same in tems of general election outcome as possible. Also, states would need to be allocated to represent different regions to reflect the nation's population divesity and to provide opportunities for different candidates to excel.
  4. The electoral blocks rotate their position each presidential election season. First year order is chosen by lot, then the first block from this cycle goes to the end of the line on the next cycle. This prevents permanent campaigns in places like Iowa and gives all states opportunities to set the tone, make the difference, and have a good chance of being heard. It also makes the state parties more important in relation to the national party as it will never be clear which state may be the decider.
  5. Elections should be held every other week, starting the second week in January. Though it would be preferable to have all the block vote on the same day, as long as they all voted within the week, that would be sufficient. Even with 10 voting blocks, it would be wrapped up before June 1. Besides, we're seeing the phenomenon that the longer the contest goes on, the more excited people are getting and the higher the turn out. I can see voting blocks contesting with each other to see who can claim bragging rights for the biggest turn out.
  6. Now, the big decision here is what to do about the primary vs. caucus and small state vs. big state which diminishes the votes of people who are in big state primaries. Rule one is you must have a single contest. No Texas Two-step or Washington Waffling. The next part will take a bit of explaining:

Allocate delegates on the basis of proportional turn out. This means that a delgate is granted for every 100,000 or 15,000 or 250,000 or whatever the threshold number is no matter what state you are in. No gerrymandered districts with the voter in precint 1 counting for more than those in precinct 4. States that want to hold caucuses can do so, but the low turnouts for caucuses will result in a lower delegate count and thuis voice at the national convention. Want more voice at a national level? GET OUT YOUR VOTE.

This offers a poweful incentive to state parties to get people in the door. Candidates will find it tougher to game a system by suppressing votes or trying to appeal to only their own consitutencies. A small state that has a big Democratic presence and a strong GOTV operation, can increase its influence in the national party in relation to a large state, yet big states are guaranteed of having their larger populations be accurately represented. States that are traditionally Republican are made to get off their asses and pump up their communications efforts or be ignored. Less prominent candidates can make inroads in smaller states because it takes the same number of voters to get a delegate as in a large state, where they may not be able to do the big media buys or get the attention of the more popular candidate. Finally, it behooves a candidate to run strongly in every state, as poor turnout and low votes means fewer delegates even if you win. You can't win except by increasing participation.

States have every incentive to engage in massive get out the vote efforts. They begin to contest with each other for delegate representation based on turn out. And, well, that also means you don't know who gets how many delegates until all the votes are in, the total turn-out is tallied, and the delegates apportioned in accord with that. A candidate then gets the the number of delegates in a given state based on what percentage of that state's vote she garnered.

If state X turns out 2,000,000 voters, and they are apportioned 1 delegate per 25,000 voters, there's 80 delegates. Candidate 1 got 45% of the vote, candidate 2 got 35%, and candidates 3 & 4 each got 10%. The delegates are apportioned 36 to #1, 28 to #2, and 8 each to #3 & #4. State Z who decided to hold a caucus the same day only turned out 250,000 voters, so only gets 10 delegates. Caucus states have to report total number and actual vote counts at the end of the caucus, and delegates are allocated to candidates proportionally. In the case of fractional delegates, overall vote allocation in the voting block will determine who gets to claim the delegate. A candidate who is a bigger vote getter across states will pick up the extra delegates as a reward for being more competitive in more contests.

So, that's how I spent my Friday night dinner. What were you up to?



YAB said...

Well thought-out. If I understand you correctly, there would be a primary contest every week or two, right? I think maybe two weeks should be the minimum - enough time to digest the results but not so long as to create a narrative.

I also think there needs to be a geographic component as well as equal numbers of electoral votes. This is purely to keep travel expenses for the candidates at a reasonable level (no having to fly coast-to-coast every other day). Remember, money will (generally) be less available early in the campaign.

I also think we need to get rid of caucuses completely. They are just way too undemocratic.

Lastly, it will take a DNC leader stronger than Dean to handle Iowa & New Hampshire. As far as I am concerned, the DNC could simply tell those two states that if they run a primary/caucus prior to Jan. 2 of the campaign year, their votes won't be counted. Yea, I know I want the Michigan & Florida votes to count, so this is inconsistent. But those two states have held power for way too long.

Or, alternatively, there is no reason why a state has to hold a primary on a Tuesday, right? So, the schedule could be worked out so that some other state would hold its primary the day after Iowa and the day after New Hampshire. That way, those two states could keep their cherished up-front status but it wouldn't matter because their influence would have been effectively destroyed.

Chinaberry Turtle said...

Anglachel, I think this is a great idea. If I might, I would make one suggestion.

Small states might object to the small size of their maximum obtainable number of delegates. For example, if state X has 1,000,000 residents and 100,000 votes = 1 delegate (say), then even if everyone voted Democratic and everyone showed up to the polls, X would only be awarded 10 delegates.

Perhaps there should be "bonus" delegates awarded based on the percentage of participation. For example, if some threshold percentage of X's population comes out to vote in the Democratic primary, then X is awarded a bonus of, say, 10 extra delegates (or whatever) on top of the delegates they are awarded according to your description. This way, small states would have a bit more incentive to play the game with all the bigger states.

But I really think your idea would be a great improvement over the current system. I really hope Dean & Co. find their way to your blog at some point and seriously consider your proposed plan.

The only potential downside is that it might encourage the primary to actually go all the way to June 1. Since the total number of delegates is not known in advance, there is no 'a priori' magic number that is the threshold for victory. Basically, the front-runner would never know exactly how much of a front-runner he/she is, which could encourage the trailing candidates to keep going.

Of course, I call this a *potential* downside because I'm not convinced that a long primary season is necessarily a bad thing for the Democratic party. Probably is a bad thing when race-baiting and sexist slurs are cast by one candidate upon another, but if it was just an ordinary above-the-belt slug-fest (e.g. Dean v. Kerry last time around), it would probably be really good for the party.

Chinaberry Turtle said...

Yab: I also think we need to get rid of caucuses completely. They are just way too undemocratic.

Hi Yab. I think Anglachel's proposal gets rid of caucuses without getting rid of caucuses. That is, her proposal doesn't, in undemocratic imperial fashion, say that states *can't* have caucuses. Instead, it just builds in heavy incentives against them (i.e. taxes them to death).

Anonymous said...

Even with these changes, how do we take care of the media bias and the responsibility to vet each candidate fairly? I mean, most people only found out about Rev. Wright two weeks ago. I think every voter has the right to know as much about their candidate is possible. Most people obviously don't know half of what they need to know about Obama. Can you imagine if Obama's Rev. Wright connection was exposed after NH or SC?
Check this site out. It's for people who want to take their vote for Obama back. I'm sure there are thousands of people out there who wish they could do that right now. I feel bad for them. I know I'd feel betrayed if I voted for a candidate then found out he was associated with people like Rezco and Rev. Wright. I'm passing this site along to my friends and any other website willing to put this up.

gendergappers said...

Great idea, Cutepeachpanda - we all can and should disseminate this -"I'm passing this site along to my friends and any other website willing to put this up.

I'll also add it to a letter to editor.

Anglachel,changes like you suggest are long overdue, especially to get rid of caucuses so everyone would be able to vote. Now how to get the media to be fair? Boycott their sponsors vociferously.

Anonymous said...

genderpapers - The site is a great idea, but I wonder who started the site. There are some grammatical errors and they need to do a better job of moderating the comments. There are already bogus and inappropriate comments on there that need to be taken down. I hope the person running it does a good job of taking care of these minor issues. If not, I hope someone else starts a better site where people can go and post their decision to no longer support Obama. I know there must be quite a few of those people out there after the Wright controversy.

gendergappers said...

Cutepeachpanda - Good point. I, too, was disturbed by some of the trash comments. I have written the owner, with our concerns. Perhaps you and others might engage her/him?

Shainzona said...

Could all of the states in a block vote on the same day? And what about all voting occuring on a Saturday or Sunday to allow for maximum turnout? (I'm sure that idea has already been discussed somewhere...just curious why we don't have week-end voting already.)

Common Sense Gram said...

I am wholeheartedly behind changing this crazy system. I have never understood how a few thousand peole in a caucus state can be allowed to skew the results.
Ditto for only allowing Dems to vote in Dem primaries.
Here in Pa it is closed and you have to make up your mind and declare a month ahead.

cls said...

I like everything you've posted with the exception of same day registration. Honestly, that's part of the problem we've had with Democrats for a Day. No, if someone wants to participate in the Democratic primary, registration 30 days before the said contest should be standard across all states. This would incentivize the state party structure to get that part taken care of and out of the way so that they could then focus on their GOTV to boost their delegate numbers in the last 30 days before their primary.