Donald Trump has complained that the Republican primary process is a “rigged, disgusting, dirty system” that deprives people of the chance to vote for their preferred presidential candidate. He accuses the Republican Party of stealing delegates from him.
If he thinks this system is complex, Trump should look to the GOP’s past primary elections. Now, those were complicated!
As recently as 2012, for example, some states used a three-step voting process that often yielded two opposing outcomes. But the Republican National Committee worked with state parties to streamline and standardize the 2016 election to minimize confusing results.
Some complexity remains because each of the 50 states can set its own rules. As the founding fathers devised, U.S. presidential elections are not national races. Rather, they occur state by state, which inevitably creates some complexity. But there are clear and now simpler rules. Candidates just need to read them.
This year, for the first time, the Republican National Lawyers Association is helping presidential candidates get on the ballot in every state. In earlier elections, individual candidates were responsible for finding out each state’s requirements, and then had to meet 50 different deadlines. In the 2012 presidential race, for example, Texas Governor Rick Perry and four other candidates did not secure enough signatures to gain ballot access in Virginia, a critical state with 49 delegates.
The GOP lawyers group has given every candidate its Ballot Access Initiative booklet, which explains the rules in each state. The national party is trying to help all candidates save both time and money.
The Republican National Committee also published an official guide last October. It explains each state’s system of selecting delegates to the Republican National Convention — which also vary. The committee even changed some archaic party rules to further streamline the campaigns.
Some states, for example, relied on a three-step process to select delegates. First, precinct caucuses would hold a nonbinding straw poll, which was only a beauty contest. Second, the caucuses would hold real elections to select delegates for a state convention. Third, those state-convention delegates would choose the delegates for the national convention.
Those first two elections took place on the same day, often with very different results. And only one counted.
In Minnesota during the 2012 presidential election, for example, former Senator Rick Santorum won 45 percent of the straw-poll beauty contest, compared to Representative Ron Paul’s 27 percent. In the vote that mattered, far more Paul delegates were selected to attend the state’s convention. Months later, when the state convention chose its national delegates, Paul won 32 delegates to Santorum’s 2. Three steps, different outcomes, much confusion.
In trying to standardize the election, the RNC told states they had to eliminate the beauty contests. That would ensure only one outcome. Voters would also no longer wonder why they were casting votes for an election that didn’t really matter.
Meanwhile, Trump is only now complaining about losing in the delegate selections of Colorado and other states. The primary rules, however, were not subject to recent last-minute changes. According to the Republican National Committee, the state delegate- selection process was set by Oct. 1, 2015. So, all potential presidential candidates knew months in advance what each state’s rules would look like. There could be no “stealing” of delegates by secretive changing of rules.
For candidates like Trump, who seems to have not considered the different rules in each state, this might be an unpleasant surprise. But candidates don’t get to ignore how each state works. Under the U.S. federalist system, each state runs elections differently, including Colorado.
Colorado’s system used to be far more complicated, much like the one Minnesota got rid of. In 2012 in Colorado, Santorum collected 40 percent of the nonbinding straw-poll vote, to Mitt Romney’s 35 percent. The caucus attendees also selected delegates to the state district conventions. But the results were completely different. Colorado sent half its delegates to the national convention as “uncommitted,” mostly leaning toward Paul. It was confusion every step of the way.
Last August, though, Colorado simplified its voting process by eliminating the straw poll. Yet, the district-convention process that Paul was able to take advantage of remained in place. (And Paul is far from the first candidate who springs to mind when one thinks of an establishment insider who perpetrates dirty tricks.)
Accordingly, on March 1, any registered Republican in Colorado could go to a precinct caucus to choose delegates, who would go to the district conventions in April to select delegates for the Republican National Convention. A significant number of Cruz supporters attended those caucuses and chose delegates who favored Cruz. Many other candidates did not think to send blocs of supporters. So, when district conventions voted overwhelmingly for Cruz delegates last week, Trump was shocked, shocked by the outcome. Many experts had indeed projected that Trump would win at least 7 of the available 34 delegates. Instead, he got zero.
But he shouldn’t have been surprised. The rules were defined months ago. On top of that, they were simpler than any previous Colorado election.
Trump is now criticizing such rules as “undemocratic,” designed to thwart the will of the people. Granted, holding primaries rather than caucuses might be simpler. But every state, including Colorado, offers voters the opportunity to participate in the process for selecting delegates to attend the Republican National Convention.
It does take some effort to understand the U.S. federalist system. Elections take place at different times and in different ways in different states. But some rules will always govern how Americans elect their representatives. And despite Trump’s complaints, the RNC has taken a measurable step to simplify the process in 2016.