Super Tuesday's dominance highlights how presidential selection process can exclude many US voters

WASHINGTON (AP) — As an independent, Christian Miller can’t vote in Pennsylvania’s closed presidential primary in April. He said it wouldn’t matter even if he could.

“You’re not really voting for anything," said Miller, who left the Democratic Party in 2022. “Every election I've ever seen, the candidates have been decided by the time they get to Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania is a crucial presidential swing state and the fifth most populous in the country. And yet holding a primary so much later than other states means its voters often have little say in choosing the presidential contenders. It's the same for voters in much of the rest of the country.

That dynamic is even more pronounced this year with the front-runners for both major parties in overwhelming position to become the presumptive nominees on or not long after Super Tuesday, traditionally the biggest day on the election calendar when 16 states hold contests.

Academics and democracy analysts said the presidential primary system, in which a small percentage of the nation's voters often determines the candidates, is one of several quirks that make the United States stand out. To some, it raises questions about whether the world's oldest and most prominent democracy might also be among the least representative.

Voter attitudes might be different if the U.S. were more like many countries in the European Union that give all voters a slate of candidates from different parties and then hold a run-off with the top vote-getters, said Danielle Piatkiewicz, deputy chief operating officer at the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, a Denmark-based think tank.

“You don’t have the frustrations of where it’s an either or system,” she said. “Usually you can find a political party that meets your needs.”

Attention to America's primary system is especially notable this year, a historic one for elections around the world and as polls have consistently shown a deep lack of enthusiasm for a rematch between Democratic President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

As Tuesday's contests near, Biden and Trump appear on their way to securing their parties' nominations even though just eight states will have awarded delegates through presidential primaries or party caucuses by then.

Paula Stevens, 73, is one of those voters unhappy with the candidate options and frustrated that the contests are likely to be decided by the time she is able to vote on March 19, the date of Ohio's primary.

Grocery shopping north of Columbus, Stevens said she will pass on this year’s presidential contest. She registered Republican in 2016 specifically to vote against Trump, but can’t support Biden this year.

"There’s no choice,” she said.

Nick Troiano, founding executive director of the group Unite America, said the system also fails to engage independent voters, who are prohibited from voting in presidential primaries in 22 states. That's 24 million voters who end up “stuck with the party nominees” without selecting them, he said.

He said gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts highlights another consequence of independents being excluded from many party primaries.

"The primaries are really the only elections that matter because the districts are so uncompetitive these days,” he said.

More than 80% of congressional districts are decided in the primary because the districts lean so heavily in favor of one party or the other. But a much smaller percentage of voters cast ballots in those races: "So we have a rule of the minority, not the majority,” he said.

It's yet another aspect of elections in the U.S. that sets the country apart. In most states, a partisan legislature draws the legislative and congressional districts and can do so in a way that ensures it will hold onto, and perhaps expand, its power.

The U.S. is “pretty close to the only democracy in the world” that has the participants of the government controlling the redistricting process and making the rules, said Michael Miller, a political scientist who specializes in democratization at George Washington University. “For a huge swath of our country, it’s still parties picking what’s best for the current party in control.”

What several experts said they find most striking about the U.S. compared to some other democracies is that the right to vote is not enshrined in the Constitution.

The amendments make it illegal to deny specific groups the right to vote, “but there is no provision in the Constitution that gives you the right to vote generally, other than the anti-discrimination provisions,” said Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center.

What is there is “not the same as saying every citizen has the right to vote and to participate in a free and fair electoral process. If I could wave a wand, I would start there," said Nathan Stock, associate director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program. “That lack of a codified right allows for a lot of other mechanisms, voter suppression, all kinds of issues that at this point are fairly unique to American democracy.”

Other concerns include the hyper partisanship prevalent in the country's politics and the stagnant nature of the government. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which ranks 167 countries and territories on measures such as political culture and political participation, lists the U.S. as a flawed democracy in its 2023 report.

The report warned that if Biden faces Trump again in the general election "a country that was once a beacon of democracy is likely to slide deeper into division and disenchantment.”

There is one notable bright spot. Despite hurdles to voting and a selection process for presidential candidates that can exclude much of the country, Miller, of George Washington University, said the actual administration of elections is “exceptional in the United States."

That is despite years of attacks from Trump, who falsely blames his loss in 2020 on widespread voter fraud and whose drumbeat of election lies has persuaded a majority of Republicans to believe Biden was not elected legitimately.

"Despite the growing distrust of the system because of extreme partisanship, there’s really no evidence of any real fraud occurring," he said, noting the dedicated professionals running the systems.

“Even well-established democracies have much higher degrees of errors or even some degrees of violence,” he said. "We don’t really have that — so far, anyway.”

____

Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

Gary Fields, The Associated Press