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How Should We Nominate Candidates for Office?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
February 16, 2020

In the wake of the Iowa caucus fiasco, discussions rage on about the best way to pick candidates in the preliminary stage of elections. We typically call these primary elections or nominating elections. The methods vary from state to state, and even within some states. For presidential elections, the parties pick methods and in 2020 the Democratic Party has eliminated the caucus process in all but four states. But parties nominate candidates to run as standard bearers in elections for state legislature, congress statewide office and even sometimes local office.

The traditional method for primary election was that candidates got access to the ballot, usually by petitioning, and then there was a partisan primary to select the candidate to represent the party at the general election. Ballot access in this scenario was done by circulating a petition which is certified by election officials and then guarantees a spot in the primary to the candidate. Sometimes petitions are challenged by opponents and that process plays out even to the courts. However, in some states, candidates can pay a filing fee and skip petitioning entirely.

Among the most complex systems is in Massachusetts, where candidates for statewide office must circulate petitions and then participate in a nominating convention and win at least 15% on the first ballot to secure a spot on the primary ballot. This year the United States Senate election will involve such a competition and as of mid-February, local party committees will hold caucuses to elect delegates to the nominating convention at the end of May. It has been a few years since candidates that met the petition threshold were denied the 15% of delegates to get on the ballot. It is easy to imagine the scenario of five qualified candidates and two not meeting the threshold just because there aren’t enough delegates to go around.

There are states that take the caucus process to lower districts in order to nominate candidates. A twist on this is in California, where a, “Top two,” primary was introduced. In this case, candidates run in preliminary elections and indicate a party preference to help guide the voters. For some offices then the parties conduct a caucus to designate someone as the endorsed candidate. This part of the process is forbidden for non-partisan office. The top two narrows a potentially larger field to the last two candidates, who compete at the general election. This system was designed to take partisanship out of certain contests.

It raises an interesting question about the nature of these types of institutional structures and their impact on our political system. Can any arrangement of this type make a difference in a world where 90% of the president’s party approves of his job performance and 90% of the opposing party disapproves? We have seen this situation in the last two administrations. The proponents of the, “Top two,” system view it as a way to promote civility and non-partisanship. But it does not work that way; In 2018’s United States Senate election in California, there were two Democratic finalists for Senate. While a Republican did make it into the final two for Governor, he was beaten decisively by the victor, Democrat Gavin Newsom.

There is interest now in ranked choice voting, a system where voters rank voter from 1 to the last (or stop where they want) and votes are transferred as candidates drop from the bottom. In a single member election (say to pick the candidate in a primary) it is also a form of instant run-off where transfers happen only if no candidate gets beyond 50% on first preferences. The arguments are similar as for the top two; voters get broader choices, and since candidates may need second votes from other candidates it will promote civility. These arguments may have some value, or not, but it is unlikely that institutional structures for one purpose—choosing a candidate for a party line—will result in the realization of other goals like more civil political discourse or lessen partisanship. Other states have run-offs based on a threshold.

There are guidelines for how these systems should be designed. One of the most straightforward and intuitive comes from the late Robert Dahl. Writing in his work, A Preface to Democratic Theory, he laid out some conditions for what constitutes majority rule. Fundamental to this framework are the following ideas:

  • Universal participation by members of the polity.
  • Each vote counts equally.
  • The person with the most votes win, and those alternatives with the most votes replace those who won previous elections.

In our current context, the Iowa caucus fails these basic tests. There is at best, an indirect relationship between votes and delegates (particularly the state delegate equivalents) which means that all votes aren’t counted equally. Our systems for democratic contests should privilege the concerns highlighted by Dahl. It should be designed to include those democratic goals, rather than the hope that by tinkering with institutional structures one can get other outcomes, not necessarily majoritarian or proportional expressions of support which are critical for democratic systems.


Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University. He can be reached at [email protected] and is a former academic program director at Walden University. All opinions and mistakes are his alone. He is the author of a chapter in the upcoming volume, Public Affairs Practicuum from Birkdale Publishers.

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One Response to How Should We Nominate Candidates for Office?

  1. Dr. Robert Brescia Reply

    February 18, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    Hi Ben – great article, thanks! Bob

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