What Makes a Vote? Discussing America’s Electoral System

by Emma Gomez

On January 26th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to ask the question: What Makes a Vote? With the Iowa caucus less than a week away, it seemed only right that the first discussion of the spring semester focused on this contemporary issue. While most would argue that they have an educated understanding of the presidential election process, the discussion proved that there were many details of the process that members were not aware of and a lot of area for policy recommendations. To address these issues, Outreach Director Ricardo Jaramillo (CC ’19) and Treasurer Emma Cloyd (BC ’19) began the discussion by separating the details of the process into four distinct categories: voter ID and registration, caucuses vs. primaries, delegates and super delegates, and voting scheduling.

In 2007, the New York Times reported only 120 cases of voter fraud out of the millions of citizens that cast a ballot that year. Despite the small percentage of the population taking part in this wrongdoing, the demand for stricter voter ID laws from conservative lawmakers has resurfaced as a hot topic in the upcoming election. Moreover, demand for policies to increase voter turnout have emerged in recent years, as 24% of the eligible population of voters are not registered.

Members first put to rest the controversy over voter ID laws, explaining that they were a non-issue created to exclude minorities and lower class citizens from democratic processes. To increase voter turnout, members suggested online or automatic registration as effective policies to streamline the process and make it more accessible in a country dominated by technology. The idea of same-day registration was also offered as a way for citizens to be able to participate in the election without having to remember to register 60 days before they’re scheduled to cast a ballot.

The discussion then moved on to an explanation between a caucus and a primary. Ricardo and Emma described how caucuses and primaries both involve selecting delegates for candidates, but in different ways. During a caucus, people go to a meeting and discuss the candidates before casting an informal vote. While in a primary, voters submit actual ballots as they participate in a sort of preliminary election. There was debate between members over which style of election they preferred. Those who favored the caucus system advocated for its focus on discussion while those who preferred the primary favored the way it gave voters a chance to actually cast ballots rather than simply claiming they support a candidate.

The discourse then transitioned into the open vs. closed primary/caucus system. In an open primary/caucus, voters are not required to declare party affiliations while casting a ballot as they are in a closed system. The members who were in favor of the open system spoke to how declaring party affiliation increases partisanship while those who were fond of the closed system explained how party members could sabotage the votes of a candidate from another party in their state if their candidate was secure.

The participation of super delegates was another contentious discussion topic. Super delegates, unlike regular delegates, are not required to support the candidates that win their respective states. Given that they are usually either party officials or members of Congress, some members of the group decided that their experience was necessary to ensure the candidate who would work best within the system gets the position, while others argued their participation was completely undemocratic.

Finally, the discussion ended with discourse over front-loading, or the idea that candidates who win early caucuses and primaries will gain momentums that last throughout the election season. Some members offered the idea of switching around the order of the state primaries and caucuses in order to ensure that states with varying interests could have the focus and coverage that the initial states enjoy.

Ultimately, it seems that these large scale election reforms will take years to bring to fruition and what policy makers should be doing now is ensuring that the current system continues to be fair and allowing all eligible voters to participate.