A year ago, no one thought we would be here today – in a place where our democracy is being invigorated on a weekly basis by a still undecided presidential primary between two incredible, barrier-shattering candidates. For people of my generation, this is our first real glimpse of national democracy in
Beginning in 2000, it has been clear that only the votes of a handful of voters in a handful of states really matter in determining the president of all of the
Not exactly. In both 2000 and 2004, the election was not fought in
Faced with these realities, it was perfectly reasonable for a citizen to become cynical about the value of voting and the likelihood that there voice could make any difference. In
Which brings us to the beauty of the primaries this year. Our democracy has been given a shot of Red Bull by a combination of three unexpected characteristics of the campaign that we ought to try to replicate in the future.
First, margins matter. The most intriguing thing about the Democratic delegate dash is that it does not just matter who wins a state, but by how much. The idea, solidified by the electoral college system, that a state that is decided 51% to 49% ought to apportion its influence (winner takes all) the same way that a state decided 80% to 20% is ridiculous and makes a mockery of the very concept of democracy.
Second, politics is local. The delegate rush has also forced the candidates to look not too closely at statewide numbers, but instead to focus on district-by-district results. Because there may be delegates to gain even in a state that is certain to be lost (and even more so because the number of delegates may depend upon margin of victory), candidates are wise to campaign everywhere. Sure, battleground states (or districts) will get more attention, but a system where a Republican candidate has no reason to campaign in
Finally, democracy requires participation. The system we all know and loathe discourages participation. Because only votes in early primary and battleground states truly matter, what is the incentive for citizens to invest their votes and more importantly, their mental energy in a campaign? What is the point of even following politics or considering different positions on important issues when the direction of our leadership will be determined primarily by Iowans and Floridians? What the surprising length of the nominating contests has shown is that people will participate and will invest their minds in the political process when they perceive that their votes matter.
There is nothing more troubling to democracy than voter impotence because the (often correct) belief that a vote is meaningless encourages voter apathy and disengagement from governance. Our Constitution is clear that the government serves only at the pleasure of we, the people. Too often that seems to not be the case, but in the last eight weeks, we have gotten a glimpse of several characteristics that can improve our democratic process. Of course, all is not quite perfect – there remains the specter of superdelegates undoing all of the democratic enthusiasm generated by these primaries.
This year, we have stumbled upon a system of national democracy that is maintaining voter engagement across the country and for an extended period of time. As we look beyond November, the country would be well served by building upon this stumbled-upon blueprint to reimagine American democracy for the 21st century.