Trump’s primary power

Henry Olsen for the Washington Post updates his top 5 list of the GOP primaries that will show Trump’s influence in the midterms. His new rankings list the Perdue-Kemp gubernatorial primary in Georgia first. When I contemplate this race, as well as the rest of Olsen’s list, I think it’s important to consider that the extent of Trump’s power is a function of not only voter preferences but also the institutional structures that convert those voter preferences into electoral outcomes. For example, what if Georgia used Alaska’s new electoral system (“top 4 with RCV”) of a nonpartisan primary that sends four finalists to the November general election, the winner of which is chosen using Instant Runoff Voting? What would be the extent of Trump’s power over the outcome of Georgia’s gubernatorial election in that situation? There is reason to believe that it would be greatly diminished, relative to the current electoral system in Georgia with its traditional party primary, because both Perdue and Kemp would likely be among the four finalists to compete for the preferences of Georgia’s entire electorate (not just its Republican voters). Kemp, in other words, would have the same relative advantage against this Trump-endorsed opponent that Lisa Murkowski will have in Alaska. The Alaska electoral system hardly guarantees the defeat of the Trump-endorsed candidate (much less victory for a Trump-opposed Republican like Kemp–in Georgia, Stacey Abrams might win), but Alaska’s system does tend to reduce Trump’s leverage over the process. (The system of Tournament Elections with Round-Robin Primaries would do this even more.)

If one fears Trump’s capacity to influence the outcome of GOP primaries and then have his endorsed candidates win general elections in red and even purple states, with the consequent threat to democracy from having a Trump-led party in power, then one ought to put at the top of one’s list of election reform priorities the kind of structural change that would reduce the leverage that Trump has based on the existing system of partisan primaries followed by plurality-winner general elections. Whether to replace it with Alaska’s new system or something else is another matter. But one should still see Trump’s present political strength as a consequence, at least in large part, of an existing electoral system that is not inevitable but is instead itself a political choice.

The Democratic Party has spent the entirety of 2021, in the aftermath of January 6, as if the top electoral reform priority must be to make sure that it is easy as possible for voters to cast a ballot. Democrats continue to emphasize this as their highest priority as they search for a way to negate the unified GOP opposition, through means of a filibuster, to their Freedom to Vote bill. But if Trump and a Trump-dominated GOP ends up controlling American government again, to the long-term detriment of American democracy, the culprit likely will be not the inability of voters to cast a ballot if they wish to do so, but instead the particular electoral system that converts the ballots cast by voters into the outcomes that identify which candidates are entitled to hold office as a result of elections.

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