If there is one thing voters can agree on in the 2016 election, it’s that our electoral system is alienating the very people it seeks to represent. On Sunday’s airing of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver discussed the undemocratic nature of presidential primaries and caucuses and how the complex rules of participation continue to confuse voters every election.
Oliver explains that the process hasn’t always been this convoluted. Up until 50 years ago, most states did not even hold primaries. Instead, nominees were selected solely by party insiders at the convention. When the Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, who had not even competed in a primary, convention goers were angry. The parties then reformed their systems to give members more of a voice, but left the details of these reforms up to state officials.
The result? A complicated, non-cohesive election every four years, Oliver says.
“To be fair to both parties, they are basically private clubs—they can set their own rules,” he said. “But if you play by a system of complex, opaque rules that nobody understands and that you could use to your advantage, even if you don’t, you are going to alienate voters. This is a system which clearly needs wholesale reform,” Oliver adds.
On the Democratic Party side, we have a system that allows some delegates — superdelegates — to vote for any candidate they choose, regardless of the primary election results.
“The theory behind superdelegates was that the party leaders could step in if they didn’t like the way things were heading,” Oliver explains. “Which is what makes it so weird that whenever Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC, is asked about it, she insists that the superdelegates would never do that.”
“Look, we have party activists, elected officials and other leaders that are a part of our process but would never determine the outcome of our nominee,” Wasserman Schultz is shown saying on a clip from Comedy Central.
Why then, Oliver asks, does the Democratic Party still have this special class of delegates?
“You’re basically keeping rat poison in a jar next to the sugar, saying, ‘Hey, it hasn’t been a problem yet.’ That may technically be true, but is this really the best system you can think of?” – John Oliver
The Republican Party, however, is no better. In a number of states, delegates “are only required to reflect their state’s choice in the first round of convention voting—after that, they become unbound delegates and can vote for whomever they want.”
Oliver says a big part of the problem is that the issue only gets attention during the primary and then fades away after nominees for the major parties have been selected. He called the current system a “clusterf—” that will never end unless we commit do something now.
“Let’s together pick a date early next year to actually write an email to the chair of each party and remind them – politely – to fix this,” he suggests. “I propose February 2nd. Now, that will be easy to remember because it’s Groundhog Day, which does seem appropriate because unless this primary process is fixed, we are all destined to live through the same nightmare scenario over and over again until the end of f—ing time.”