The Democratic Party presidential nomination system and the Electoral College share a fatal flaw: both allow a candidate who did not win the most votes to secure victory anyway. If the Democrats advance a nominee who failed to win the most votes during the primary, a political crisis awaits them.
Several presidential candidates have already questioned the legitimacy of the Electoral College, and prominent Senate Democrats recently introduced a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution entirely. However, condemning the Electoral College while retaining the current nomination system is no longer a sustainable double standard.
The problem begins with superdelegates—delegates unaccountable to the results of their state’s primary or caucus. Superdelegates were not eliminated by the party in its post-2016 primary reforms, only barred from the first convention ballot.
No Democratic convention has moved beyond the initial ballot since 1952, but the unusually large 2020 field of candidates creates the possibility of a “contested” convention. If this occurs, the “pledged” delegates awarded based on primary and caucus results will no longer have exclusive power to decide the nominee. Instead, candidates will need to jockey for both superdelegates and the release of pledged delegates from their competitors in order to secure a majority of all delegates and with it the nomination. In other words, in a contested convention there is no guarantee that the popular vote winner in the primaries becomes the nominee.
But the Democratic popular vote problem arises long before the convention. In every state, each candidate is required to meet a 15% threshold in order to receive any delegates from the contest. Delegates that would have been awarded to candidates below 15% are instead redistributed proportionally among the candidates who cleared the threshold.
Like the Electoral College, this violates the one person one vote principle. In 2016, over five million voters cast a ballot in the California Democratic primary—if a candidate had received only 14%, those roughly 700,000 votes would have earned no delegates and effectively not have counted. That is more votes than the entire 2016 Democratic turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada combined.
How then to avoid the political catastrophe of violating the popular vote in the primary? The solution is simple: circumvent party rules by going directly to the most powerful stakeholders in the 2020 nominating process—the candidates themselves. At the debates, the moderator should ask every Democrat on the stage a clear yes or no question:
“If no candidate secures the nomination on the first ballot at the convention, will you drop out of the race and release your delegates to the candidate who won the most primary votes?”
On this question, there is no room for equivocation—good luck to any Democrat who tries to defend a process that ignores the popular vote. With caucuses now required to release raw vote tallies, 2020 will be the first time in the history of the Democratic Party that the exact vote count will be publicly reported.
This approach is exactly what 14 states and the District of Columbia have already adopted by signing the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (a system DNC Chair Tom Perez has praised), which if implemented by enough states would supplant the Electoral College and award the presidential election to the popular vote winner. The logic is identical: bypass flawed rules in order to ensure a just outcome.
There are legitimate concerns about a nominee advancing with only a plurality of the vote—a ranked choice primary system offers a better long-term solution. In the interim, a pledge to respect the popular vote in the primary would remove a potent attack from the arsenal of President Trump and Republicans, who would undoubtedly exploit any whiff of popular vote hypocrisy on the part of Democrats and worse, wield it as a cudgel to sow further distrust in the Democratic Party and the democratic process—both outcomes the American political system cannot afford. The time to draw the line in the sand is now, long before it is clear which candidates stand to lose or gain.
If the ethos of the Democratic Party is a commitment to democracy and the universality of voting rights, then the current structure of the presidential nominating process remains a glaring incongruence. Anything less than the popular vote victor securing the nomination is beneath the Democratic Party and the American values it fights to protect.