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The EditorsMarch 06, 2024
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a Super Tuesday election night party Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Is anyone happy with the way the United States chooses presidential nominees? We are ostensibly in the thick of the presidential primary season, when candidates make their pitches to the voters, but the contests have seemed completely irrelevant this year. Most American voters—59 percent, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll taken in February—believe that both President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat, and former president Donald J. Trump, a Republican, are too old to serve another term, but under our current system, few voters have any real opportunity to consider alternatives.

Despite poor approval ratings and polls showing him in danger of losing to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has maintained an iron grip on the Democratic Party, seemingly because party leaders have no idea how to change course even if they wanted to. On Feb. 24, more than eight months before the general election, the political reporter Maggie Astor explained in The New York Times that it was too late for a new candidate to get on primary ballots; this means that almost all the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August will be Biden loyalists.

As for the Republican Party, it has ceased to function as anything other than an appendage of Mr. Trump, whose multiple criminal indictments and increasingly radical statements about what he would do in a second term (including militarized mass deportations and a gutting of the civil service system at the federal level) have been accepted with shrugs rather than vetted through primary-season debate. That the Republicans did not even bother to write or adopt a party platform in 2020 was another sign that our major parties have been completely subsumed by the personal campaigns of whoever last grabbed the reins of power.

In a year that is supposedly a test of “small-d” democracy, the voice of the voters seems fainter than ever. A one-party state is certainly not a democracy, but neither is a rigid two-party system of trench warfare, where the great majority of voters support either the Democrats or Republicans election after election without the chance to express their values or priorities, and where nominees and platforms (if they exist) are decided years before an actual election.

In a democracy, a political party should seek candidates who can win a general election and can then govern, addressing the concerns and priorities of the electorate. The presidential primary, which dates back to 1912 but became the chief tool for choosing nominees in the 1970s, has been championed as a way to give rank-and-file voters a real voice in their parties and to level the playing field for candidates who would not have thrived in the “smoke-filled rooms” of party bosses that characterized U.S. politics before the 1960s. (Jimmy Carter, who vaulted from one term as governor of the mid-sized state of Georgia to the Democratic nomination in 1976, is the archetypal example of someone who benefited from a long series of primary contests.)

But the primary system is now falling short of both of these goals. The Republicans have not had a complete primary season—that is, one in which more than one plausible candidate was still campaigning by the time the last state got to vote—since 1976. The Democrats had a competitive primary season as recently as 2008, but they, too, now seem more of a fortress for incumbents or front-runners than a vital political party looking for new ideas. Despite the extraordinary length of primary campaigns, they seem strangely immune to changing events, including the war between Hamas and Israel and the record monthly number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, both occurring after the leadership of our only two viable political parties were practically set in stone until at least 2025.

Can we do anything to change our creaky, lumbering process for selecting national leaders? The U.S. Constitution was written before the rise of modern political parties, 21st-century forms of communication and billion-dollar advertising budgets, so it is not surprising that the document does not anticipate our current situation. But the Constitution was also designed to be amended, because its drafters recognized that it would need to be amended.

Yet instead of engaging in the amendment process, we have increasingly adopted the fatalistic attitude that we’re stuck with our election system—that it is simultaneously an unmovable mountain and a house of cards that will collapse if we so much as touch it. It is time to seriously consider alternatives.

Our presidential elections, and our primary elections in most states, follow a “first past the post” model in which the candidate getting the most votes, even if far short of a majority, wins it all—even the extraordinary power of the executive branch. Alternatives include run-off elections and ranked-choice systems that encourage candidates to form diverse coalitions and broaden their appeal to voters, as opposed to seeking wins by the narrowest possible margins. Other electoral systems worth studying, at least at the legislative level, include multimember districts and proportional representation, which could give a voice to voters who are now always in the minority, such as Democrats in Oklahoma or Republicans in Massachusetts.

A major change would be to eliminate the Electoral College or reform it so that third parties are not relegated to spoiler status. Dissatisfaction with the two-party system is deep and enduring, and Catholic voters in particular are often forced to choose between two candidates who each violate Catholic social teaching in major ways. Our current duopoly is certainly not called for in the Constitution, but it is baked so thoroughly into our norms and laws that one might think the Democrats and Republicans have divine status.

As expected, in March 5’s “Super Tuesday” elections the leading candidates secured most of the delegates necessary to guarantee their nominations at the party conventions this summer. Since the advent of the modern primary system in the 1970s, those conventions have increasingly become pro forma exercises—and this year, the same can be said for the primary elections themselves. Another possibility, however, is that one or both conventions will be epochal, as the last possibility for a party to respond to a candidate who no longer seems viable due to advanced age, overwhelming unpopularity or possible felony convictions.

The dysfunction of the 2024 primaries should not be diagnosed as simply another tragic example of partisan polarization, as if such division were a virus from outside our political system. Rather, it is a predictable result of the parties and candidates leveraging the design of our elections to hold on to power as long as possible. Instead of presenting voters with a quadrennial opportunity to vote against whomever they dislike the most, we need a discussion of how to change our nominating and election systems so that they offer a choice more worth making.

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