Widgets Magazine


The conversation: voter representation

Once again, political columnists Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna and Terence Zhao have co-written a column as part of their series, The Conversation. This week, they discuss the roles voters and delegates play in the nominating process and whether or not the parties ought to follow the will of the largest group of voters.

Ruairí: Hi, Terence. Happy to do this again. Have you seen the latest video that’s been circulating on social media recently? Apparently Joe Scarborough (or Morning Joe), MSNBC’s token Republican, called the Democratic primary process “rigged” against the voters after Bernie’s win in Wyoming netted him no more delegates than Hillary from that state. What are your thoughts?

Terence: Well, I think my first reaction to Morning Joe was not about the issue, but surprise at the fact that it was brought up altogether. Joe Scarborough is hardly some populist demagogue or grassroots agitator, he’s an extreme establishment figure. So, for him to bemoan a problem that is generally a grassroots concern does highlight the severity of the issue.

Ruairí: Yes, it does bring up a larger issue – do the votes even matter when it comes to deciding the nominee? At the conventions this summer, the Democrats will have superdelegates whose votes will far outweigh those of the regular citizens (such as you and me), while the Republicans may end up having a contested convention (many are actually hoping for that scenario so that they can prevent Trump) in which the delegates could even select a nominee who received not a single vote during the primaries. I think the merit of these rules and how well they reflect the system of representative democracy that we aspire to uphold can be debated, but it annoys me when Sanders or Trump supporters claim to be cheated by the establishment or victims of “rigging.”

Terence: I interpret this “rigging” business another way. If Trump were unable to get a majority, and a brokered convention selected another person as the GOP nominee, I would agree with you that the results of that convention would not be considered “rigged” – you are correct in saying that this is allowable under the rules of the convention. However, I don’t think the object of protestation is this result, but rather the set of rules that could allow this result to occur, and I think that is a legitimate argument: If the winner of an election can, by virtue of the rules of that election, be declared the loser, then those rules are, in a sense, rigged. So, I guess my question is not “do the votes even matter,” but “shouldn’t the votes matter?”

Ruairí: Well, Terence, it seems as if you are making the judgement that the candidate who receives the most votes should be “the winner.” But our system of representative government is set up in such a way that we award an election to the recipient of the majority of delegates. Furthermore, when something is rigged, a specific, desired outcome is produced. The fact that the convention process favors establishment candidates does not make it rigged. It simply fulfills the purpose of having a convention of delegates rather than having a simple, direct democracy. If you’re making the argument that our representative government should be a direct democracy, that is one thing, but it is ridiculous to expect that our non-direct democracy ought to function as a direct one.

Terence: Well, yes, in my ideal world, the candidate with the most votes should be the winner. But, if we’re in a delegate-based system, then the candidate with the most delegates should be the winner. Neither is currently the case, however, and that’s a problem. And yes, if the convention system favors establishment candidates, then it is indeed rigged towards those establishment candidates by definition. And yes, I recognize that the United States is neither a direct democracy nor a majoritarian democracy. However, as the old adage goes, just because that’s the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way they ought to be, and there is no reason that we should stick to this antiquated primary system. If anything, the current fiascos on both the Democratic and Republican sides should provide a fairly convincing reason as to why the current system is in desperate need of reform.

Ruairí: I don’t think so. I think the “fiascos” of this election are evidence of why it is important that our system of government keep a check on populism. Sure, at a liberal college in a liberal state, many may see Bernie Sanders as a good (some might even say necessary) choice for president. But we can probably agree that it is a good thing that there are protections in place to prevent Donald Trump from taking the most important office in the country. Historically, the responsibility of selecting nominees for the presidency (as well as deciding the eventual winner) has been delegated to the parties and the electoral college. These elite decision makers were trusted to better serve the public good than the public itself. However, over time, more and more power has been passed to the people. Today, we must continue to consider the reasoning behind the rules that remain in place to prevent populist candidates from enacting a tyranny of the majority.

Terence: But it is quite dangerous to simply dismiss the current electoral trends as something that needs to be “checked.” What is the difference between harmful populism and when people are expressing legitimate grievances that are not being addressed? Where is that line? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that the answer depends on who you ask – the political establishment would probably have a different answer than, for example, a Sanders or Trump voter. However, the way the primaries are set up, the establishment has the power, and they are going to be the ones to answer the question.

And something tells me that the establishment is not made up of idiots. Sure, the current primary system will defend us from tyranny of the majority, but I suspect that it would also stifle any and all challenges to the political status quo, no matter how valid or necessary.


Contact Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna at ruairi@stanford.edu and Terence Zhao at terencezhao@stanford.edu.

About Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna

Ruairí Alfredo Arrieta-Kenna (BA Political Science '18) was a columnist for the Stanford Daily.
  • toto

    Being a constitutional republic does not mean we should not and cannot guarantee the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes. The candidate with the most votes wins in every other election in the country.

    Guaranteeing the election of the presidential candidate with the most popular votes and the majority of Electoral College votes (as the National Popular Vote bill would) would not make us a direct democracy.

    Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote on all policy initiatives directly.

    Popular election of the chief executive does not determine whether a government is a republic or democracy.