A remnant of the old Progressive movement bedevils us today: our primary system. A century ago, the Progressives (quite different from today’s liberal “progressive agenda”) supposed that voting on everything would perfect democracy (it doesn’t). Initiatives would override captive state legislatures, recalls oust crooked governors and primaries nominate presidential candidates. 

Now we have propositions on the ballot that few understand and overlong, tiresome elections among dubious candidates. In 2016, many Americans moaned, “Are these two the best we can do?” Majorities viewed both unfavorably. The problem arises in part from nominating a candidate with just a plurality (the biggest fraction) rather than a majority (more than half).

The length of U.S. presidential elections — a year and a half — is absurd, wearying both candidates and voters. There is no sure-fire way to nominate good candidates. The annual conferences of both British Conservative and Labour parties may fall into militant hands. Attended by party workers, unionists and members of Parliament, they have at times elected pathetic losers, the latest being Labour chief Jeremy Corbyn. Even after their Brexit debacle, Tories seem likely to win again, although if Boris Johnson heads them, Brits will face the choice of two defective leaders.

France’s main parties recently adopted nationwide primary elections to pick their presidential nominees. In the regular election months later, the top two winners of the first round have a runoff two weeks later. This encourages frivolous voting on the first round but guarantees the new president gets a majority. In 2002’s first round, leftists scattered their votes among several parties, narrowly dropping favored and effective Socialist Premier Lionel Jospin into third place behind the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the runoff between not-very-clean Gaullist President Jacques Chirac and Le Pen, French wisecracked: “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.” Sound familiar?

The U.S. in 2016 could have fielded better candidates. Ohio Governor John Kasich, according to numerous polls, would have done better against Hillary Clinton. Bernie could have beaten Trump. And Vice President Joe Biden would have beaten them all. In some respects, the old smoke-filled back room selected better candidates than today’s hyper-democratic primaries. The old pols knew a thing or two about viable candidates and winning elections. And as long as there is a choice of at least two parties, the system is democratic.

We could borrow features of U.S., British, French and Australian systems to escape our present trap and produce better candidates. First, keep our parties’ national nominating conventions and all their hullabaloo, but hold them midyear — before any primaries — and have them produce a slate of half a dozen viable candidates. Yes, the “establishment” would make backroom deals to eliminate candidates who depart too far from party values. 


Then let this party slate campaign among themselves — travelling, speechifying and advertising. Party officials could hold two or three debates among the slate but tightly controlled to eliminate vile speech and personal attacks. Those who misbehave will be silenced by a flick of the moderator’s switch. The purpose: get them to discuss issues and policy.

Two months before election day, hold a nationwide primary by “ranked-choice” voting that allows registered party members their first, second and third choices from the slate. If no candidate gets 50 percent of first choices, the weakest candidate is dropped. Those who gave their first choice to him or her would then have their second choice added to the initial first choices. Do this until one candidate gets half the first-choice votes. Australia, Ireland and New Zealand already use this “instant runoff” system, just approved by Maine’s Proposition 5, the first state in the U.S. to do so. 

From this, each party will field one thoroughly vetted candidate the party can unite behind. No more state-by-state primary marathons lasting half a year. And abolish the anachronistic Electoral College — invented to favor slave states — and do a straight national count giving victory to the numerical winner (Gore in 2000 by 0.5 million votes and Hillary in 2016 by 2.9 million). At present, candidates concentrate on a few “battleground states” — rational but undemocratic. The entire country deserves attention. 

Impossible? Admittedly, a long educational process. But, little-discussed, a major change in our electoral system just happened: early voting, which a few years ago was not allowed. Now early voting is growing and a good idea that cuts waiting at polling places (and requires fewer voting machines, so it saves money).

Another idea rising is for a compact among the states to cast their Electoral College votes for whoever won the national head count. This works around the impossibility of changing the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College, which small states will always block.

Change is possible. If we continue with this anachronistic system, we could face damaged candidates in the future, perhaps in 2020. And it could result in the numerical loser again winning in the Electoral College.