Law lecturer Scott Fitzsimmons outlines how Americans can keep unqualified candidates away from the White House in future
It’s cliché to say that this year’s US presidential election was historic. The responsibilities shouldered by America’s chief executive, from going to war to guiding one of the world’s largest economies, make every presidential election inherently significant. But this year’s contest was more extraordinary than most, because Americans were asked to choose between a highly experienced — if uninspiring — woman, and a man who had not only never held political office, but also repeatedly demonstrated that he lacked the intelligence and moral character to lead the most powerful country on Earth. Given the shocking outcome, both the Democratic and Republican parties must reform their candidate selection process to ensure that no one as unqualified as Donald Trump ever gets close to the White House again. To start with, the parties need to change when voters select their party’s candidate for president. The current system of state-by-state votes staggered between February and mid-June is highly problematic because it affords undue influence to the states that vote early, like Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire. The results of these contests can provide momentum to certain candidates and undermine the viability of other candidates long before voters in more populous states that vote later get a chance to weigh in. By the time Californians cast their ballots in early June, most of the people who once vied for their party’s nomination have probably already dropped out, denying these voters the opportunity to have their voices heard. Just because Jeb Bush failed to ignite the hearts of voters in New Hampshire on 1 February, this does not mean that voters in Montana would have felt the same way on 7 June. Motivating candidates that perform poorly in early contests to drop out makes it easier for candidates who perform well early on, like Trump, to seem like the inevitable choice of Republicans across the country, simply because they may be one of the only candidates voters in states that vote late have left to choose from. Fear of a Trump presidency A better alternative would be for both parties to hold a nationwide vote for their presidential candidate on a single day in, say, early June of the election year. This would greatly reduce the momentum effects produced by the current staggered system that Trump benefitted from. Public opinion polls during the primary season could still encourage certain candidates to stay in until the selection day and others to drop out based on their apparent level of popular support among likely voters. However, a key difference from the current system is that candidates who perform poorly in early polls have not lost any actual votes, and will therefore not be motivated to drop out if it seems mathematically impossible for them to catch up to the frontrunners. Instead of being driven to cede the field, these candidates could attempt to reinvigorate their campaign and fight on until the ballots are cast at the end of the contest. Of even greater importance, relying on a single nationwide contest to select the candidate would allow the parties to retire the archaic delegate-based selection system, whereby a few thousand delegates choose their party’s candidate at the party’s national convention, more or less on behalf of the primary and caucus voters. People who fear a Trump presidency may be confused at this point, since the delegate system currently provides a party’s leadership with a way to try to prevent a popular but unqualified candidate, like Trump, from headlining their party’s ticket. This is because a party’s leadership could attempt to convince the delegates to ignore the primary and caucus voters’ preferences and throw their support behind another candidate. However, while Republican leaders reportedly discussed this option, they did not pursue it, due to the fact that the delegates may have ignored their plea for sanity, it would have demonstrated significant disunity in the party, and it would be widely seen as undemocratic. The Democratic Party maintains hundreds of unelected ‘super delegates’ for this very purpose but any attempt to use them to override the will of the delegates selected by voters would encounter the same problems. Alternative vote Given the issues associated with trying to use delegates to one’s advantage in the candidate selection process, the leadership of both major parties should instead let the voters decide but provide them with a better way to do so: the alternative vote system. Under the simplest version of this system, voters rank the candidates on the ballot 1, 2, 3 and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of ‘first choice’ votes, then the candidate who received the fewest is eliminated and the second choice votes on their ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates. This process of eliminating the lowest-ranked candidate and distributing their supporters’ second choice votes would continue until a candidate has received enough votes to achieve a majority. They would then be declared their party’s candidate for president. To help illustrate how this system could help prevent an unqualified candidate from winning their party’s nomination, let’s use a hypothetical example. Based on the assumption that the Republic Party leadership has seen the light and switched to a single nationwide selection day, five Republican candidates are still in the race by early June 2016: Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio. After the voters cast their ballots, the allocation of first choice votes comes out like this: Trump (30%), Bush (26%), Cruz (24%), Kasich (15%) and Rubio (5%). Such a result is not unrealistic, since eliminating the staggered state-by-state voting system would reduce the current system’s momentum effects and encourage more of the candidates to see the race through to the end. This is where the utility of the alternative vote system comes into play. Given how controversial Trump is, with much of this controversy stemming from his lack of qualifications, it is highly likely that he is not the second choice of many voters who ranked the other candidates ‘1’ on their ballots. In other words, Trump’s own supporters might really like him, but this does not mean that many of his opponents’ supporters are even lukewarm to him. Multiple polls taken during the primary season suggested that this was, in fact, the case. As a result, even though Trump receives the most first choice votes, he can still be prevented from winning if enough of the eliminated candidates’ second choice votes are distributed to another reasonably popular and more qualified candidate, like Bush or Cruz, to eventually give that candidate a majority. To be clear, this system is not Trump-proof. However, it greatly reduces the chance that an unqualified candidate with very low favourability ratings can win their party’s nomination. It also provides a more comprehensive picture of the voters’ preferences and should satisfy more of the voters than the current system that, in effect, ‘wastes’ the votes of any whose preferred candidate does not win. This should, in turn, help bring the party’s supporters together as they kick off their general election campaign. Staunch resistance Finally, the easiest reform the major parties can make to help prevent the selection of an unqualified candidate is to limit voting in their leadership selection contests to people who have been party members for at least six months prior to the day of the vote. Some states already limit primary and caucus voting to party members, though many of these allow people to join the party shortly before casting their ballot. Other states currently allow anyone to participate, even people who are members of another party. Limiting participation to people who have been party members for at least six months should make it harder for an unqualified candidate, like Trump, from getting a boost at the ballot box from brand-new party members who strongly support the candidate but lack a robust connection to the party and its traditional values and policy positions. A candidate who plans their run well in advance could still sign up plenty of new members before the six-month deadline, but this rule would afford long-standing party members more say in the selection process. Furthermore, tightening up the voting rules should also make it harder for supporters of the other major party, or independents that are leaning toward the other major party or a third party, to attempt to spoil a party’s chances of winning the White House by casting votes for an unqualified candidate they think will be easy for their preferred party’s candidate to beat in the general election. Reports emerged during the primary season suggesting that numerous staunch Democrats cast ballots for Trump in states with loose voting rules for this very reason. These proposed changes are bound to meet staunch resistance from party traditionalists and, of course, those who enjoy the fact that a reality TV star will soon have access to a sizeable nuclear arsenal. But for those of us who want to make sure that the people vying for the most powerful office in the world are at least remotely qualified, these changes can’t come soon enough. Scott Fitzsimmons is a lecturer in International Relations in the University of Limerick’s Department of Politics & Public Administration.