Need to know: US Democratic Primaries

What is it?

You might not have noticed, but every four years, the US has a presidential election. The two parties that matter, the Republicans and the Democrats, compete to see who gets to run the free world. The Primary process is the mechanism through which they select their presidential candidates. Starting in February, each state votes and candidates win delegates for the party’s convention; the candidate with the requisite number of delegates will become their nominee. The Republicans have a president prepared, and they don’t seem eager to get rid of him, so the Democrats are alone in the primary circus.

How does it work?

There are two kinds of votes in a primary: a primary and a caucus. A primary works like a normal election, but only party members can vote. Unless it’s an open Primary, then independents can vote too. The Caucus is ripped straight from a pre-reform act age of democracy. People assemble in a large enough room, and each candidate is designated a space, and their supporters gather there to signal their support. If a candidate fails to reach “viability”, their supporters will be redistributed to the other candidates, and campaigning is allowed both in between and during voting rounds.

What’s happening now?

2020 has so far failed to follow the two-horse race model: there are 4 viable candidates: Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren. For most of 2019, Joe Biden was the front runner, Bernie Sanders reasonably close behind, with Elizabeth Warren trailing both. Mayor Pete was an object of media interest, but he was firmly in fourth or fifth place. But eventually polling met reality, and Iowa turned the race on its head: Joe Biden came fourth, Bernie won the popular vote, but Pete won more delegates. Elizabeth Warren came third.

What’s wrong with the system?

Everything. The use of the Caucus system, which requires people to be present for hours, meaning people who can’t afford to invest that time, primarily people in precarious work or people who can’t afford childcare, are blocked off from attending. The lack of a secret ballot means that people often report not voting for their preferred choice to avoid repercussions. Beyond that, there is no real reason Iowa is first in the nation; its not a swing state, or representative of the country at large. But as a result of the choice to stagger primaries, rather than have them all in one go, Iowa gets to decide the frontrunners for everyone else. Exacerbating this is the invisible primary, which means candidates get to Iowa over half a year before the actual voting starts; an average American presidential candidate spends just under a year and a half campaigning.

How can it be fixed?

It probably can’t!

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