Even as this extraordinary election season gave Pennsylvanians and many others an all too rare chance to influence the parties' presidential choices, it's trained a bright and often unflattering spotlight on the nation's zany nomination process. As many more Americans have learned, the delegates who determine the nominees may be committed by primaries that, depending on the party and state, are reflected on a winner-take-all or proportional basis, statewide or by congressional district. Others are directed by smaller caucuses or even smaller party gatherings. Still others, like Democrats' superdelegates and Pennsylvania Republicans' delegates gone wild, are driven mainly by personal whim.
So how did our democratic government devise such an undemocratic process? That's easy: It didn't. Nominations are the private affairs of the political parties, and their workings, no matter how arbitrary or idiosyncratic, are largely a matter of First Amendment-protected free association.
That would be the end of the debate if not for the fact that state and local governments fund and administer the major parties' primaries. Pennsylvania's, for instance, costs its taxpayers about $20 million. So while the parties have a constitutional right to choose their nominees as they see fit, we, the people underwriting primary elections, have great leverage to question and alter the rules. And more of us are doing so in ways that could make primaries more representative.
The dismantling of the primary system as we know it is in one respect well underway. The spread of the open primary, which allows all registered voters to participate regardless of affiliation, has facilitated the success of party outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are now in a minority of 14 states with completely closed presidential nomination votes, according to the group Open Primaries - which, by the way, found deep reserves of local angst over closed primaries after Philadelphia's latest mayoral election.
Two states, California and Washington, have gone further, instituting "top two" primaries for non-presidential elections. All candidates compete in a single preliminary election, from which the two most popular proceed to the general, even if they're both Democrats, Republicans, or neither.
The group Fair Vote argues persuasively that the egalitarian goals of top-two would be realized more consistently by a top-four primary followed by a ranked-choice general election. The latter, employed by several U.S. cities and other countries, has voters rank candidates by preference - first choice, second choice, etc. This enables an instant runoff: The voters' first choices are tallied, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and the loser's voters are allocated to the remaining candidates based on their second preferences. The process repeats until a candidate wins an outright majority.
Ranked-choice voting tends to favor moderation and discourage fervent but narrow candidacies - the sort that win crowded fields with, say, 35 percent of the vote. Interestingly, Fair Vote has found that instead of winning seven of 11 Super Tuesday states, Donald Trump would have lost seven or more in a ranked-choice instant runoff.
The most ambitious election reforms have been enacted by voter referendum in states that, unlike Pennsylvania, facilitate direct democracy. That suggests that to the extent the people are heard on the subject of primaries, they will rightly question what they're paying for.