The complimentary question (what is right with our primaries?) has the virtue of a brief answer, that our primary elections generally allow voters to choose from more than just two candidates and often many more.
But it is no secret that, whenever there are more than two candidates, plurality voting may produce an error. So it is in defiance of good sense that we use plurality voting at all, but especially for primary elections. The widely popular alternative, ranked voting, though marginally better than plurality voting, shares that unfortunate tendency to make critical errors. And we should take note of the striking similarities there are between IRV and the overall primary election system. More accurately, the similarity is strong between our primary season and what I will call the IRV-ideal, the series of actual plurality elections that an IRV election mimics.
Both our system of primaries and the IRV-ideal select a winner based on a series of successive plurality elections, eliminating candidates with successive elections. Whether by example or by appeal to Arrow's theorem, we know that that the outcome with IRV-ideal is inherently subject to mistakes at times. And experience suggests that the likelihood of similar mistakes in our primary elections also warrants our concern. While our primaries do in fact differ significantly from the IRV-ideal, there is little cause to think these differences would make our primary system anything but worse than the flawed, IRV-ideal.
One important difference is that with the IRV-ideal, the very same voters participate in each of the successive elections. In contrast the voting pool for our primaries changes entirely in each successive election with voters drawn from entirely different states. Moreover, in the case of primaries each successive election operates with different rules. In some states, the voter must choose well before the primary election, which party's primary to vote in, but in others that decision can be made just before voting.
Another notable difference between the two electoral systems is that in the primaries, withdrawal from contention is voluntary rather than enforced as it is with IRV-ideal. Conceptually that could be argued as an advantage on the side of the primaries, but so often the withdrawal is not as a direct consequence of an election but in response to other pressures on candidates, sometimes unrelated to the voting of citizens. Primaries seem bewilderingly complicated and often confusing. It would be hard to argue that these differences do much but make our primaries yet less credible than the IRV-ideal, which is itself not particularly credible.
Undeterred, we continue to select of nominees for each major party using this irrational system we observe to work so poorly. That important but recurring decision surely deserves better. Identifying a suitable voting system has been the primary focus of this series of articles on balanced voting and several have been found. Important qualities are for the system are to be balanced and to be evaluative. But there are additional issues to consider.
The U.S. Constitution leaves the selection of a state's Electors (to the Electoral College) entirely up to the individual state and for that reason alone, administering general elections separately for each state seems a forgone conclusion. But primaries are a fundamentally different matter. As with political parties, primaries are not even mentioned in the Constitution. There is no Constitutional requirement for primaries to be held at all, much less that they be administered state by state. There may once have been practical limitations that made nation-wide elections impractical, but with modern communications, that objection would be only a vestige of the past.
Political parties in our system of government are (at least when it seems convenient) regarded simply as organizations, somewhat social clubs, of people who voluntarily join. In this view, there is no justification for government restrict the number of political parties or in any way to become involved in the internal operations of a political party. And importantly, there really is no motivation for a party to even consider each state separately in deciding who to nominate or support in the general election.
Notice that conducting primaries one state at a time as we do, leads to a primary season lasting several months. Big media enjoys good income from this long contest, but it also gains an excessively powerful role in shaping who will become president. In principle, it is hard to justify the involvement of government, at any level in choosing the nominees of even one political party. Of course, in principle, it should also be easy to form a political party and possible for that party to win elections.
In an ideal country there would be no impediments to forming a new party and consequently many political parties. Absent government involvement, a party might decide to hold a nation-wide poll of members to choose its nominee. Or a party might decide to have a series of polls. In any event, there is no reason for coordinating these decisions with other political parties and there is certainly no reason to conduct the polls one state at a time. By adopting a nation-wide selection process, a party would level the power of voters across all states, giving all members an equal voice in choosing their party's nominee. The parties would be free to adopt whatever voting system they choose for this purpose, but clearly it would be foolish for a party to select a system that is incapable of making good decisions when faced even with several candidates.
In our real country though, it seems clear that, given our current electoral operations, we do not treat political parties entirely as private associations, but somehow as quasi-governmental agencies that happen to subsidize the corporate media. Government works to limit the number of parties and it can and does intrude on what could be their internal operations. In our world, government manages the affairs of political parties to quite a remarkable degree.
State governments rule that voters must register to vote and some states make the registration ordeal fairly difficult. In order to manage state supervision of the primaries, states require voters to declare their one choice of political party as part of registration. In this way, government restricts citizens to participating in the nomination decision of one single party. And we should not ignore the role that government plays in enforcing the two-party system through its control of ballot access.
Is it good policy to force citizens to identify as a member of a particular party when registering to vote? Perhaps a citizen has a good reason to belong to two or more political parties. With many parties to choose from, a citizen might feel sympathy for several of them. And might a party want to restrict their membership to those who work for the party or help support it?
A consequence of government intrusion into our choice of party membership is that it requires voters to declare their party affiliation and that data is tabulated and made public by the state. Unfortunately the use of that data is not limited to managing the (unnecessary) state-by-state primary elections. That data can be and in fact is used for other purposes such as for advertising and for facilitating precise Gerrymandering.