Votes that count & those that don’t
Mark Trahant /TrahantReports.com
Hillary Clinton won the Virgin Island primary on Saturday. According to The Washington Post, Clinton may pick up as many as six of the seven delegates from the Virgin Island (plus the five super delegates). Sunday a similar election occurs in Puerto Rico.
But here’s the thing. Neither the Virgin Islands nor Puerto Rico get a vote for president in November. The parties open voting for the primary, but the Constitution gives neither of the two territories any electoral college votes. So this weekend is it, the people’s only chance to have a say.
Does the United States have a screwy presidential election process or what?
Puerto Rico has a slightly smaller population than Indian Country. The Virgin Islands has about 105,000 people and is significantly smaller than the Navajo or Cherokee nations. As I have pointed out: Indian Country ought to have a voice in the primary election. And the parties could make that happen now.
Then, the modern primary system makes no sense. Especially when you add in the nonsense of a caucus (a neighborhood meeting that limits participation to those who can spend the time) or even worse a “beauty contest” where voters go to the polls and cast ballots that don’t mean anything such as in Washington state. (Previous: Another election day: Who does Indian Country back?)
Part of the problem is that today most voters are independent. Forty percent of us don’t register as a Republican or Democrat. And at the state level there are alternatives that recognize that trend and actually give independent voters more sway.
That will happen Tuesday in California. Sort of.
California’s presidential primary is old school. Voters had to pick a party and register last month in order for their votes to count. It will be too late to make that party preference choice on election day.
So many people will go to the polls expecting to vote for Bernie Sanders. Only some will find out that they are registered as “unaffiliated” or independent and cannot vote in the Democratic Party Primary unless they specifically ask for a Democratic ballot. (Then this might not be a problem because the state reports registration is breaking records. Perhaps voters understand that yes, there is paperwork required in order to vote.) For his part Sanders has raised many of the problems within the Democratic primary, such as the use of elected officials, or super delegates, in the primary process. But the problem, the breakdown, is much larger than just with the Democrats.
But in California’s Senate primary voters are allowed to pick any candidate from any party. It’s called the top-two or a jungle primary. So there are 35 candidates, including 12 Republicans, and yet it’s likely that the top two finishers in that will both be Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange.
The problem with the jungle primary is that Republicans will essentially be shut out from now until November, losing a voice. And any democratic system ought to be about making sure that citizens, all citizens, have a say.
One proposed reform gets rid of primaries all together and replaces them with ranked voting or Instant Runoff Voting. This system lets every candidate run during the general election, but allows voters a mechanism for second, third, and additional choices. Critics say the problem with ranked voting is that it’s confusing. Voters must make multiple decisions. But that’s not been the result after actual elections. The city of San Francisco’s instant runoff system increased both voter participation and representation from ethnic groups. (Imagine an IRV system for this presidential year: All of the Republicans who started the campaign would probably still be on the ballot. Same for the Democrats. And, for that matter, the smaller Libertarian and Green parties.)
Perhaps instant runoff is not the solution. But something must change. The United States needs experiments with election methods. There needs to be a transition away from the screwy to something else. No system will be perfect. But any reform ought to at least be fair.
Soon we will also be able to observe what happens in Canada as it begins it reform. Canada’s Liberal Party promised improving election mechanics and Parliament is supposed to consider changes as soon as this December.
The election, more than any other in recent memory, exposed the weakness about how we vote. Some ballots count. Others don’t. It’s not democratic.
And speaking of that: This Tuesday’s election is not the last primary. The District of Columbia will vote next week. And unlike the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico residents of the District do get to vote for president now and again in November. But vote for a member of Congress? Nope. It’s just one more example about how the machinery of democracy is broken.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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Please credit: Mark Trahant / Trahantreports.com