Despite the fact that primary elections can be regarded as a positive contribution towards a functioning democracy it would not be US politics if the primary election process had not been degraded to the point where it is barely functional. Primaries are focused on the two-party duopoly along with the rest of the US political landscape, and both have the means by which the establishment candidates have a large advantage.
While the Republican Party deploys a variety of means to cheat in general elections against the Democrats (this will be the topic of the next post), ironically their primary election process is, relatively speaking, less rigged than the Democrats. Evidence for this lies in the fact that Trump became the Republican nominee for president. Nobody in the establishment wanted him as their candidate, neither did the vast majority of the Republican paymasters. Efforts to prevent his rise from powers working behind the scenes were underway as early as February 2016 but the party in many ways fell victim to the same faux populism that befell Hillary Clinton in the general election. The Republicans could have deployed a variety of procedural tricks to ensure that Trump did not receive enough delegates at the convention to win the nomination, but in the end the party acquiesced to the demands of the majority of its members. I’m sure that this has nothing to do with the fact that, after a decade of “purification”, those members are gun-wielding psychopaths.
This does not mean that the primaries of the Republican Party are beyond reproach; far from it. Some states, such as Colorado and North Dakota for example, bypassed primary elections entirely in 2016 and went straight to the convention.
For the most part, Republican primaries do not really need to be rigged. The establishment is only afraid of left wing candidates gaining sufficient power to implement positive change, and there is zero chance of a genuine left wing candidate being a member of today’s Republican Party. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Bernie Sanders had decided to run as a Republican; there is a good case to be made that he would be president by now, had he done so.
Regardless, as toxic as Trump is to anybody in the world in possession of a brain and a conscience, he is not left wing and therefore posed no real threat to the establishment or the wealthy elites. Indeed, his time as president has meant a windfall for the wealthy and corporate classes, so they would be delighted with his term so far.
If there is to be a challenger to the establishment, that challenger will come from the left wing. Thus the establishment relies on the Democratic Party to ensure that nobody from the left rises to any position of prominence within their party.
The primary function of the Democratic Party, aside from the hiring of consultants, is to prevent left wing activists from rising to any position of political power. It is a difficult tightrope to walk, as Democrats’ political survival relies on electoral support from their progressive base. Skilled politicians, like Barack Obama, pretend to embrace progressive values while working behind the scenes to crush them, while less skilled politicians, like Hillary Clinton, openly attack progressive values and then try to shame and terrify voters into voting for her. The problem is, in the age of the internet and Wikileaks, the magic tricks of the Democrats have been revealed to their audience. Eight years of Barack Obama and his criminality have shown the progressive base to be cautious of the Democratic establishment, and so the party must come up with new ways to fool its members into voting for its establishment candidates. Blaming Russia for Clinton’s loss in 2016 is party of this strategy; it is not just about the maniacal ego of Hillary Clinton, but mostly about refusing to acknowledge that their pro-establishment message is unpalatable to the American public. Below are the dominant means by which the Democratic Party rigs its primary elections against progressive candidates.
Delegate votes are the means by which a candidate for President and, at the state level, Governor, are determined. Delegates are supposed to provide their votes for the candidate that wins the popular vote, but theoretically they are not explicitly required to do so.
A superdelegate is a delegate that is not beholden to the state political apparatus; they are unpledged delegates that vote for which ever candidate they wish. Superdelegates are appointed by the party leadership and are not subject to election like the pledged delegates.
Superdelegates only exist within the Democratic Party; the Republicans do not have superdelegates. During the 2016 election 15% of all Democratic delegates (714 out of 4,765) were superdelegates. In other words, 15% of all votes for the Democratic candidate were not subject to the democratic process.
Superdelegates skew primary elections by two means. Firstly, the press can include their “pledges” as part of the formal delegate count as they continuously did for Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign. This is entirely dishonest, since superdelegates are not formally counted until the Convention at the end of the primary elections. In the 2008 elections, for example, superdelegates who had originally “pledged” for Hillary Clinton flipped to vote for Obama during the Convention. The media does this as a form of voter suppression; the goal is to create the illusion that the establishment candidate has an insurmountable lead over his/her opponents. Anti-establishment voters, believing that the election is a foregone conclusion, do not show up to vote in the primaries, throwing the election to the establishment candidate.
Secondly, superdelegates have the authority to swing close elections in favour of the establishment candidate. Any election that is within a 15% margin could be swung in that direction, and that does not include what could happen at the individual state level. As an example, Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a sizeable margin; an early win that showed that he was on the rise. He ended up with 15 delegates from the state ahead of Clinton’s 9. However, Sanders supports were somewhat disturbed when they learned that if the superdelegates from that state voted for Clinton as they had “pledged” to do so, then it would overturn his victory, returning a delegate count of 15-17 in favour of Clinton at the Convention.
Superdelegates represent an entirely undemocratic element within the Democratic Party that is vital to the continuation of the unpopular establishment. The party is a political farce so long as they exist. There have been recent efforts to reform the superdelegates. A plan that has the support of the DNC leader is to prevent superdelegates from voting during the first round of the presidential roll-call vote. This and other toothless compromises that accomplish very little have been proposed, but even with those the superdelegates are up in arms. They are fighting it with everything they have. Without this crucial first step towards Democracy the Democratic Party remains broken and unworthy of the votes from the electorate.
(2) Voter suppression
The Democratic Party employed a variety of shady practices to keep vote numbers low in those districts less likely to vote for Hillary Clinton. Many of these are also deployed by Republicans in general elections and will be discussed in the next post. Tricks such as closing poll stations (like in Brooklyn), poorly staffing and managing those stations that remain, deploying rules requiring voters to have been registered with the Democratic Party for six months prior to the primary elections (before the voter knew who the candidates were), disposing of provisional ballots, and disregarding caucus votes who were obviously in favour of Bernie Sanders (such as in Nevada).
There have also been reports of malicious-coding voting machines flipping up to 15% of the vote in California, the shredding of provisional ballots, and the distribution of provisional ballots to voters who were entitled to full ballot access. Tim Canova, who ran against Wasserman-Schultz in the Florida primary, talks of ballot tampering in that election, including the illegal destruction of ballots and possible collusion with the Republicans in that state.
(3) Closed debates
The Democratic Party wishes to avoid discussion of the real topics of interest to Americans as much as possible. We have already discussed the remarkable absence of meaningful political issues during presidential debates and this is exactly how the establishment wishes it to remain. If important issues such as the wealth gap, endless war or climate change were discussed the candidates may be obliged to actually do something about them.
Larry Lessig was an early candidate for the presidential primaries in the Democratic Party. He was a single-issue candidate, but arguably his single issue was the cause of the vast majority of the problems in the US: corruption. The rule for entering the Democratic Primary was that the candidate must receive at least 1% in the national polls in the six weeks prior to the debate. Lessig met this requirement and raised over $1M for his primary run in a few weeks.
Then, just before the start of the 14 November debate, the DNC changed the rules such that a candidate needed to receive 1% of the vote six weeks prior to the debate, not in the six weeks leading to the debate as had previously been the case. This was an obvious ploy to keep Lessig from participating in the debates.
It is also important to note that the debate schedule for the 2016 primaries was remarkably different to the 2008 primaries. In 2008 there were 25 Democratic primary debates; in 2016 there were only 6, and three of those were scheduled for the weekend where there would be fewer viewers. This was another means by which the Democratic Party rigged the election Clinton’s favour, as the more exposure Bernie Sanders received would increase his popularity numbers and the less exposure that Clinton received would prevent her numbers from plummeting further. Additionally, Sanders actually discusses the important political issues and so it was necessary to limit this as well.
Finally, it should be noted that the closed debate process is designed to keep progressives from presidential debates as well; Jill Stein, leader of the Green Party, was handcuffed to a chair for 8 hours when she attempted to participate in the 2012 presidential debate at Hofstra University.
(4) Pressuring non-establishment candidates out of the race
Levi Tillemann was a candidate in the last Democratic Primary for Colorado’s sixth congressional district. He was seeking to run against the Republican incumbent on a platform supporting clean elections, combatting climate change, Medicare for all, and free community college, while confronting economic inequality and monopoly power. Then he received a visit from the Number 2 Democrat in the House, Steny Hoyer, at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Denver. Hoyer informed Tillemann that the Democratic Party had made the decision long ago to run his primary opponent, a corporate lawyer named Jason Crow. Hoyer instructed Tillemann to withdraw from the race and warned him that the DCCC would continue to deploy its resources to support Crow against him. Tillemann recorded the conversation and sent it to the Intercept: you can read the story here and listen to the audio here. Tillemann went on the lose the primary election to the corporatist Crow.
This pressure to remove progressive candidates in favour of “moderate” corporatists follows patterns seen in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Texas, Nebraska, California, and others. First-time candidates are being instructed by the DCCC to provide a list of phone numbers from people who can allow them to raise $250K before they will even be considered as a viable candidate. This highlights the priority of the Democrats of fundraising above all else.
(5) Overt campaigning against left wing candidates
Occasionally the tactics listed above are not sufficient to defeat a progressive candidate, and where the polls look as if the establishment candidate is going to lose or in those rare cases where a progressive candidate defeats an establishment candidate in an electoral upset, the DCCC will then move to more overt means to prevent the progressive candidate from winning in the general election.
If the primary has not yet been lost, the Democrats will run attack ads against the progressive candidate; and remember that these are Democratic candidates. A recent example of this is with Laura Moser in Texas’ seventh congressional district. Moser, a leftwing activist who founded the Daily Action grassroots organization and was looking strong in the polls for the primary, suddenly found herself under attack from her own party. The DCCC published an opposition research memo calling her a Washington insider and a carpetbagger who has contempt for Texas. This was reinforced by several hundred thousand dollars in donations from big Democratic donors in favour of the establishment candidate. Moser went on the lose the primary election.
In those rare cases where a progressive candidate wins a primary against all odds, the tactics move to ensure that the candidate does not win the general election – even if it means losing to the Republican. The most recent example of this is Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who won New York’s 14th district primary against establishment candidate Joe Crowley two weeks ago and looks set to continue the populist movement begun by Bernie Sanders. She probably escaped the negative campaigning from her own party because they couldn’t imagine a scenario where Crowley – the number four man in the Democratic House and named as a likely candidate to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the House leader – would lose. They are now scrambling to pick up the slack, however. In just the two weeks since her election there have been dozens of hit pieces written against her, including one by Joe Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal (that’s the same Lieberman who was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election). Meanwhile her defeated opponent has not taken his name off the ballot; he has exploited a loophole in the endorsement rules and is running against Ocasio-Cortez as a third-party candidate. Doubtless he hopes to win back his seat in the general, but even if he doesn’t the hope is that the Democratic vote will be split such that the Republican wins the general election.
It is important to remember that the primary opponent of the Democratic Party is the left wing. It would rather lose to a Republican than win with a progressive candidate.
The Democratic Party says that it has a legal right to rig its primaries
We have discussed the secret deal between the Clinton campaign and the DNC that ensured her nomination as the presidential candidate in a prior post. Upon learning that the selection of Hillary Clinton was a non-democratic foregone conclusion many Sanders voters felt that they had been the victims of fraud. They had donated money to the Sanders campaign (and therefore to the Democratic Party) under the assumption that the primary elections would be fair. The Democratic Party accepted this money knowing that the elections were a farce and that Clinton would become the candidate regardless. This sounds a lot of like fraud, and a class action lawsuit was filed against the DNC in June 2016. If it lost, the DNC would owe millions of dollars in returned campaign contributions to the aggrieved Sanders supporters.
The defence of the DNC was somewhat stunning. It argued that the DNC by-law requiring that its chair and their staff must ensure neutrality (Article V, Section 4 of the DNC Charter) is “a discretionary rule that it didn’t need to adopt”. It then added that the Sanders supporters knew the primary was rigged and that they had the right to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way”. The lawsuit was dismissed in August 2017.
In other words, the Democratic Party has declared in a court of law that it sees no obligation to run a fair and impartial primary election. I think this says everything you need to know about primary elections in the US.