One of the many controversies that emerged in regards to fair voting in the 2016 US Presidential campaign revolved around rules in some states which required voters to choose their party primary far in advance of the actual primary election. Complaints about these rules arose in both major parties, with supporters of two insurgent candidates (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump) claiming that rules were rigged in favor of party “establishment” candidates. A year later, these issues from spring 2016 may seem like minor – even quaint – electoral issues in light of other accusations about improprieties in the 2016 election, including President Trump’s accusations of voter fraud, and Congressional inquiries into Russian election interference. Yet the issues are worth revisiting, not least because they are likely to spark intra-party controversies in coming years as party factions strive to gain the upper hand for subsequent primary elections. Beyond the struggle for power, the question of principle is: who should be entitled to make the parties’ most important decisions?
Whether or not the parties’ 2016 presidential primary rules should be regarded as “rigged” – a term which suggests something improper – they certainly differed among states. Within a few states, they also differed by party. Half the states had completely open primaries for at least one party (in most cases, for both major parties), which meant that registered voters could decide on Election Day whether to participate in the Democratic or Republican primary.
The remaining states differed in terms of how far in advance voters were required to make this decision between parties. The minimum waiting period was one day prior to the primary (New Hampshire),while other states imposed much longer wait periods for those changing party affiliation; in some states this category included those changing from “independent” to partisan. In Rhode Island, voters needed to register a changed affiliation at least 90 days prior to the primary; in Kentucky, they needed to do it by December 31 of the previous year (for a March 4 primary); and in New York, they needed to complete this 30 days ahead of the preceding general election (roughly six months ahead of the state’s 2016 primary). In other words, in states with the longest waiting periods, voters needed to establish their eligibility to participate in a specific party’s primary long before it was clear how either party’s contest would shape up.