Promethean Delegates Unbound: the ‘Nuclear Option’

Why does America have such a screwy “system” for electing party nominees to run for the office of president? There’s only one instance of the word “primary” and its related forms in the Constitution: the 24th Amendment. And the 76 words that make up that amendment all deal with striking down poll taxes, not some justification for any primary election system.

Our “presidential primary system” is akin to the Electoral College system in that both are undemocratic. In the turmoil after the 2000 presidential election, Hillary Clinton actually called for ending the Electoral College: “I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”

If Mrs. Clinton still thinks we should scrap the Electoral College system, a system required by the Constitution, would she be up for scrapping the primary election system, which is not? The main reason we have these wacky undemocratic primaries is this: the ballot access laws of the States.

The primary system isn’t really a “system.” Rather, it’s a mishmash of methods for choosing convention delegates. Yet, folks are expected to defer to it, to the so-called "will of the primary voters." Couldn’t the States just repeal their ballot access laws for presidential candidates from the two major parties? After all, the Democratic and Republican parties are the only parties since before the Civil War that have given us presidents. Because America operates under a “two-party system,” perhaps the States could grandfather in ballot access for our two major parties and not require them to go through the ordeal and expense of primaries.

If we had conventions only, with no preceding primaries, the criteria for choosing delegates would be quite different from what they are. For one thing, delegates would not be pledged, i.e. bound, to particular candidates.

Imagine some distant America wherein presidential primaries were a thing of the past. In that America, delegates to presidential nominating conventions would all be “unbound,” they would all have “human agency” and be free to vote as they saw fit, not merely be a rubber stamp of the primary voters’ choices.

In our imagined America, national party conventions would be quite different than they are today. They would be actual deliberative bodies, deciding which person is best to lead the nation and be their standard-bearer. Such conventions would often be messy and even rancorous. It’s doubtful that a party would want to televise such a convention.

If they have even a smidgen of honesty, primary voters will admit that they’ve made some very bad choices. It was primary voters who gave us Barack Hussein Obama; the Democrat convention delegates merely ratified the primary voters’ choice, the so-called “will of the people.” Americans are so celebrity-obsessed that some would vote for the Kardashians if they were on the ballot. One function a political party should have is to pre-screen candidates so the voters will have better choices and won’t make so many mistakes.

In July, delegates to the Republican National Convention who want to save their party’s fortunes should consider doing something that may seem dangerous: they should ignore the primaries. On April 1 at his FiveThirtyEight blog, famed statistician Nate Silver writes:

Trump isn’t totally safe even if he locks up 1,237 delegates by the time the final Republicans vote. The delegates have a lot of power, both on the convention floor and in the various rules and credentials committees that will begin meeting before the convention officially begins. If they wanted to, the delegates could deploy a “nuclear option” on Trump and vote to unbind themselves on the first ballot, a strategy Ted Kennedy unsuccessfully pursued against Jimmy Carter in 1980. […]

A final possibility is “faithless delegates,” where individual delegates simply decline to vote for Trump despite being bound to do so by party rules. It’s not clear whether this is allowed under Republican rules, but it’s also not clear what the enforcement mechanism would be.

On March 28 at Bustle, Seth Millstein explains “faithless delegate” in a short article I recommend. He provides links to both the Democrat and the Republican convention manuals, citing the current rules that treat faithless delegates.

“Faithless delegate” sounds like the “faithless electors” in the Electoral College. Consider this: Hillary wins the election but is indicted before the Electoral College votes are counted on Jan. 6. In such a scenario, we should pray that there are battalions of “faithless electors.” Otherwise, we’ll have a president whom the FBI thinks is a felon. America would then officially be a banana republic.

“Faithless” sounds terrible, but delegates should consider that the primaries have resulted in a frontrunner with sky-high negatives. I understand the attraction to Donald Trump; I’m not entirely immune to it mydamnself. But the polls are telling us Trump is unelectable. Women, minorities, and young people are really put off by the guy. Hell, even the Koch brothers are alarmed by him.

If this election really is as pivotal as everyone is saying; if conservatives stand to lose the courts and the senate, and be relegated to permanent minority status, then GOP delegates must do whatever it takes to find the nominee with the best chance of winning. GOP delegates cannot evade responsibility for huge losses this year by simply ratifying the primary voters’ choice. Delegates should start thinking about the need to dump Trump. They must therefore keep the “nuclear” and “faithless delegate” options available.

This primary season has not been kind to Republican candidates. If Trump is denied the nomination and delegates were to nominate Cruz or Kasich, Trump supporters would be enraged and might sit out the election. Therefore, delegates must go outside the 17 primary contestants. Delegates need to look for someone new who can unify the party and win the election. But the GOP establishment (the “GOPe”) must abandon any idea of parachuting in their own “white knight.”  In 2016, the white knight GOP delegates should consider is female. Women will decide this election; 25 percent of the electorate is unmarried women. But not only should delegates draft a woman, they should insist on a woman for vice president, perhaps Condoleezza Rice, Susana Martinez, or Nikki Haley. An all-lady ticket might just save America, (and the GOP). So delegates, put up your nukes.

The primary system is a royal mess. But there is one good thing that these raucous primary campaigns have done, and that is to show the establishment the mood of the voters. Some primary voters are so fixated on having a female president that they’ll even vote for a possible felon under FBI investigation. Young primary voters are so addled they’ll even vote for a socialist, (so much for our educational system). And some GOP primary voters are so angry at professional politicians that they insist on an outsider, any outsider, even Donald J. Trump. Putting the public’s dissatisfaction in high relief for all to see is no small thing, and it is perhaps the only good thing that has come out of this year’s primaries.

Power to the delegates!

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

If you experience technical problems, please write to