Chapter 3: Voter registration rules.
If the Democratic Party were really so democratic, it would be easy to vote in Democratic primaries for the Democratic candidate of your choice. But it was not so easy to vote in the primaries, and the rules making it more difficult helped Hillary Clinton.
Making it more difficult to vote is effectively a form of voter suppression. Technically, people “can” go through more hoops to be informed on registration dates, and other information, and then show up to vote on voting day. In reality, voter turnout drops when the voting laws are stricter.
Who benefits from lower turnout? In the battle of Hillary vs. Bernie, it is unquestionably Hillary who benefits from less people being able to vote. Bernie Sanders’ strongest advantages in the voting pool were younger people, Independents, and disenfranchised voters. These groups more often need to register to vote — or change or declare “party affiliation” by a certain deadline — and large portions of these groups were ultimately denied their vote because of these factors.
In the above image, deep purple states are “closed” primaries, and light purple states are “semi-closed” or “semi-open.” (For more on this, see Fairvote.) Closed primaries are a structural barrier for Independents, “unaffiliated” voters, and new voters. As you can see, New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida are closed primaries, and they are among the largest states — yielding more delegates to Hillary Clinton — in part through suppression of large voting blocs.
In 2016, Independents made up 42% of registered voters. Major efforts were made by the Sanders campaign (and grassroots volunteers) to educate and register new voters, and educate Independents and “unaffiliated” voters if (and by when) they needed to switch their registration. It was an uphill battle; final turnout in the Democratic primary election would be 14.8%. Only ~17 million Americans, that is about 5% of the U.S. population, voted for Hillary Clinton, and less for Bernie Sanders.
It is supposed to be the Republican Party that suppresses the vote, but it is both parties that suppress the vote. Arguments for individual “responsibility,” that young people should be fully informed, and simply navigate their way around the complex registration structures and rules — (rather than an argument to re-design the system to make it easier for everyone to vote) — is a politically-conservative argument. This argument does not consider the structures in place which make it more difficult to vote. In reality, these obstacles cause a low voter turnout, and when turnout is low, the more conservative candidate has an advantage — because the majority of the electorate is not actually conservative on the issues. (This is why Republicans work so hard to suppress the vote.)
The Democratic Party establishment, and apologists for the DNC in 2016, often claim that closed primaries are “fine.” They do this because it’s the only way to defend the primary process in 2016 — since an admission that closed primaries are unfair and undemocratic (which is correct) would also be an admission that the 2016 primary contest was unfair and undemocratic, and even more, that the Democratic Party itself is unfair and undemocratic.
To counter calls for a more open voting process, the defense point to phantom possibilities in which Republican voters could technically infiltrate “open” Democratic primaries, and choose their own preferred candidate. But these are, again, traditionally-conservative arguments, not so unlike the ones used by the Republican Party to justify voter suppression. The argument for closed primaries and complex registration rules is not much different from the Republican efforts to suppress votes — with ID laws and other obstacles — under the claim of “voter fraud,” which essentially does not exist.
There is no reasonable way to argue that only long-time registered “Democrats” should be able to choose one of the two potential candidates for U.S. president. What the DNC should do — if it really valued “democracy” and voter engagement — is make all primaries “open” or at least semi-open. There is no excuse for closed primaries unless your goal were to protect the establishment, insider candidate, rather than nominate the best candidate for president.
If the DNC were really concerned with fair and democratic primaries, they would also enact same-day voter registration, or preferably, automatic voter registration. As of 2017, only 15 states plus D.C. offer same-day voter registration. By international standards, this is voter suppression, and disenfranchises the more progressive bloc, the poor, and the working class.
There are other necessary reforms, but these are the bare minimum. This bare minimum standard for “democratic” primaries (with a small d) was not met during the 2016 Democratic primary. The voting rules and regulations created a systemic advantage for Hillary Clinton, and barrier for Bernie Sanders, by reducing turnout among young voters, new voters, more progressive Independent voters, and “incorrectly registered” voters.
We know the DNC could change all these rules, if they truly desired, to make it easier to vote. At best, again, the DNC is incompetent and lowered turnout through “arbitrary” voting rules and regulations. Or maybe, the process was deliberately designed in a way that would suppress candidates who did not conform to the party establishment.
Suppressing Independents, unaffiliated voters, young voters, and new voters — through unnecessarily complex voting laws — is just one more way to “rig” a primary by stifling democracy. And when you lock out Independents from the primaries, that’s not very smart, considering that Independents can swing a general election…