With the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign today, Joe Biden is the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Whatever your personal views on it, this result highlights a major flaw in the US electoral system: of the 57 states and territories scheduled to hold elections, only 31 have voted in their Democratic primaries or caucuses. The other 26 have not yet voted, and as such essentially have no say in the nominee; their decision has been made for them.
This is not an unusual consequence of the American primary process; the combination of state-run primaries, a media cycle hungry for entertainment, and parties throwing their weight behind a chosen candidate (as is, admittedly, their prerogative) has frequently ended real primary contestation before every state in the nation has had its say. Primaries in America are a consistent, year-round circus, starting as early as almost two years before the general election is held. This is not new.
The problem, then, lies not in the fact that this is a new development, but that it is allowed to happen at all. One of the main tenets of democracy is the existence of free and fair elections. Their purpose? To ensure that the electorate is able to form and express their own opinions, and to have those opinions matter and be heard–with equal weight–when electing a candidate [1, 2]. It is difficult, obviously, for citizens in the 26 primary states to make their opinions in regards to the nominee heard when the selection has been made for them months before the primary even takes place.
In this specific instance, the discrepancy can be in part attributed to the extreme circumstances surrounding Sanders’ suspension. His departure was influenced, to a certain degree, by the coronavirus pandemic, as he stated that he could not “in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour”. These extreme circumstances, however, do not wholly overshadow the other reason for his removal: by this point in the primary process, there was no realistic path to the nomination. Given the delegate math and states remaining, it seemed unlikely that Sanders could win. In essence, the 31 elections that took place prior to Sanders leaving the race had made the decision for the 26 states and territories that remain.
Though this is, of course, based off of projections for the remainder of the race, it highlights the issue further when we take into account all of the candidates that previously dropped out. Is it possible that Biden would not have been the frontrunner had candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg not dropped out? Yes, but it’s undeniable that their late exits have the potential to cost Sanders delegates that he–if this is any indicator–sorely needed in order to remain in the race. The unbalance this introduces into the race can create confusion and difficulty in clearly conveying the wants of the voters; someone who voted for Elizabeth Warren on Super Tuesday may have voted in a different manner had they known she was going to drop out later–a choice the states voting after she dropped out won’t have at all. This uncertainty hampers the ability of voters to clearly convey their desires and to have effective influence on the race.
The aspect of the primaries that allows candidates to drop out midway through voting–that makes it so that some states vote almost four months after the primaries begin–creates a fundamentally undemocratic process, where the voices of voters unfortunate enough to live in states that vote in late April or May are almost universally unnecessary. By that point, the election has been decided without them. Schumpeter, Joseph. 1943. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. Chapters 21 and 22.  Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
You bring up such a great point in this post. Would the results of the primary be any different if the order of States for primaries was different? The timing of primaries has always been interesting and slightly confusing to me, and the situation with Sanders dropping out shows a tangible situation where primary timing has a measured effect. What would be a more democratic way to select a nominee that does not fall into this same pitfall?
I wonder if you would agree that removal of choice from some voters appears to be a consistent feature of American democracy. In the case of party primaries, the factor of time means that citizens in those states which vote later typically have less of a choice and impact on the nominee. In the general election however, the factors of geography and the Electoral College leads to the irrelevance of votes by Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas. Can anyone else think of any other examples where loss of choice like this shows up in the electoral structures of the US?