Each year on April Fools’ Day I intersperse some false but plausible news stories among the real ones on my Election Law Blog. Last year, I got a number of prominent election-law attorneys and activists to believe a false report that a federal court, relying on the Supreme Court’s controversial campaign finance decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, held that the First Amendment protects the right to literally bribe candidates.
This year, among false posts, was one in which I had Donald Trump declaring that he would not abide by the results of the Electoral College vote if he was the popular vote winner. The made-up story had him plotting with his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to seize power in the event of a popular vote/electoral vote conflict.
Many people believed the post, and it even made a Washington Post list of debunked April Fools’ stories that people fell for.
It’s not a surprise. Trump railed against what he perceived as the unfairness of the Electoral College when President Obama won re-election in 2012. And he has consistently whined about what he perceives as unfairness in the electoral process. Combine that with his inflammatory rhetoric, and the idea of a Trump coup is not so crazy.
Trump’s latest complaint is that the Republican National Committee has set up “corrupt” rules to allow Ted Cruz or other to “steal” the election. His main complaint is that the parties have Byzantine rules for choosing delegates for national party conventions, who in turn choose the party’s presidential ticket. The rules may even be changed at the convention itself, by delegates who need not follow the voters’ will.
As a candidate, Trump’s complaints are laughable. If Trump is so disorganized as a candidate that he can’t even assemble the team to master the delegate and convention rules, how is he going to manage to run the massive federal bureaucracy, not to mention to defeat ISIS or build a multibillion dollar wall between the United States and Mexico?
But Trump’s grousing serves an important purpose in educating our democracy. Does it still make sense today to use party delegates and conventions as mediating entities for choosing presidential candidates? Or would it be better to have a system in which each party’s presidential nominee is the person who gets the most votes of members of the party?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Consider the role of caucuses, which have a long history in parts of the country.
Some party officials like caucuses because they give more power to party regulars to influence the outcome of the process. If you think that parties stand for something, then empowering party regulars will mean candidates that reflect the views of the most dedicated members of the party.
On the other hand, caucuses are profoundly undemocratic. Depending on how they are run, they can unfairly disenfranchise the disabled, those in the military stationed out of state, those who have to work during caucus time, and those who might have a religious conflict with a caucus run on a Saturday.
Or take rules that allow party regulars to choose delegates who may not follow the preferences of the voters when voting at the convention. On the one hand, this looks undemocratic; on the other hand, giving delegates autonomy can save the party from choosing a candidate who, because of scandal or otherwise, could be a great loser in the election.
The Democrats’ “superdelegates” — given a vote because of their stature in the party rather than because of voters’ preferences — can serve this same mediating role. Many Democratic voters probably want to give party regulars this safety valve to save them from what appears to be a disastrous nomination.
The bottom line is that the party nomination process serves two different functions: First, it winnows down the field for a final set of choices on Election Day in November. Second, it determines who should lead political parties made up of like-minded people who have come together for a key political purpose.
Regardless of where one comes down on the question of the fairness of the delegate selection process, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump for starting a national debate on these arcane but important issues.
Should Trump become the Republican nominee, perhaps the country can begin a serious debate about whether the Electoral College — which gives greater electoral power to smaller states than to larger states — still makes sense in a democracy increasingly committed to the one person, one vote ideal.
Donald’s Trump’s whining won’t change the rules for this election, but maybe something good can come out of his candidacy after all.