There’s a lot of public whining these days about the fact that North Dakota Republicans did not have a primary for the presidential race. Instead everyone was eligible to vote at their local district meeting to elect delegates to the state convention and those delegates at the state convention then elected delegates to the national convention (your humble columnist was honored to be elected). We were recently mocked for this arrangement on MSNBC. Local news sources have complained that voters “get no say.” Congressman Cramer has called it “lazy.” And ever since Trump got swept in a similar situation in Colorado he and his supporters have been calling such arrangements “rigged” and “crooked.”
But the truth is that it is the states holding primaries that are being dishonest, or at least disingenuous, with their voters. The delegates to the national convention pick the nominee. They always have. They still do. You can gin up a lot of media coverage and enthusiasm and fundraising by making people feel like all they have to do is watch a debate on television and then vote for their favorite performer (it’s kind of like American Idol) but ultimately these primaries are just a really expensive opinion poll. The more honest thing to do is to direct the voters’ attention towards the actual process of selecting delegates so they can see how to get involved in a way that actually impacts the outcome.
Typically, of course, this isn’t an issue since a consensus has usually formed around the presumptive nominee long before North Dakota’s delegates are selected. But as this nomination appears to be going down to the wire a number of people are discovering for the first time that it is still actually the delegates who pick the nominee and many are suggesting that this should be changed. It would be more fair, more democratic, we are told, if every state had a primary and if the person with the most votes became the party’s nominee.
This approach seems simple and logical on the surface and many states have attempted to imitate this by “binding” their delegates to the results of the primary. The idea here is that the delegates will be required by party rules to vote at the convention in a way that reflects the results of their state primary. But this, again, only works when there is overwhelming support for one presumptive nominee.
Our system of government is majoritarian and there’s a good reason for that. You don’t become president by winning the most electoral votes. You become president by winning a majority of the electoral votes. If no one is able to win a majority of the electoral votes (and that has happened) then Congress elects the president. This is intended to make it more likely that the President will be at least acceptable to a majority of the country rather than simply a plurality.
Similarly, to become the Republican nominee one must win the support of a majority of the delegates to the national convention, not just a plurality. Having the most delegates does not entitle you to the nomination. Having a majority does. That’s why Abraham Lincoln won the nomination in 1860. Consequently the delegates at the national convention have to be left free to negotiate with each other if no one can win majority support (our current front runner has won 37% of the vote and 46% of the delegates). It would make no sense to continuously bind them to voting over and over again the same way while everyone knew no one had received majority support. So the binding rules that several state parties have implemented has not changed (and cannot change) the fact that unless there is already a broad consensus about the nomination it is the delegates to the national convention who will pick the nominee.
I do not claim that North Dakota’s delegate selection process is perfect. It would have been great if some of the other campaigns (besides just that of Ted Cruz) had put some effort at the convention into communicating to their supporters which national delegates they preferred. For the first time this year some of the national delegates were elected after being nominated from the floor whereas previously the 25 victors have always been the 25 nominees put forward by the party’s committee on permanent organization. That’s progress but the system could probably be further improved by eliminating the committee’s nominating role.
While the party works towards these improvements, however, we must steadfastly resist the calls to join the other states in their game of bait and switch where we distract the voters from the delegate selection process with a media driven primary. This is a nomination process not Dancing With The Stars. Those who want to be involved in the process are always welcome. But there’s no reason for us to mislead them about how the system works just because real involvement might require a little effort.