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Super Tuesday’s bigfooting highlights how presidential selection process can exclude many US voters

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

“You don’t really vote for anything,” said Miller, who left the Democratic Party in 2022. “In every election I’ve ever seen, the candidates are decided by the time they get to Pennsylvania.”

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

That dynamic is even more apparent this year as the front-runners from both major parties find themselves in an 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 say the presidential primary system, in which often a small percentage of the country’s voters decide the candidates, is one of many quirks that make the United States stand out. For some, it raises questions about whether the world’s oldest and most prominent democracy is also among the least representative.

Voter attitudes could be different if the U.S. were more like many countries in the European Union that give all voters a list of candidates from different parties and then hold a runoff with the top vote-getters, says Danielle Piatkiewicz, deputy chief Operating Officer. at the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, a Denmark-based think tank.

“You don’t have the frustrations of an either-or system,” she said. “You can usually find a political party that meets your wishes.”

The focus on the US primary system is especially notable this year, a historic event for elections around the world and because polls have consistently shown a profound lack of enthusiasm for a rematch between Democratic President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump .

As Tuesday’s elections approach, Biden and Trump appear on track to secure their parties’ nominations, even though only eight states will have awarded delegates through presidential primaries or party primaries by then.

Paula Stevens, 73, is one of those voters who is dissatisfied with the candidate options and frustrated that the election will likely be decided by the time she can vote on March 19, the date of Ohio’s primary.

Running errands north of Columbus, Stevens said she will pass up this year’s presidential contest. She registered as a Republican in 2016 specifically to vote against Trump, but cannot support Biden this year.

“There is no choice,” she said.

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

He said the 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 districts are so uncompetitive these days,” he said.

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

It’s yet another aspect of US elections that sets the country apart. In most states, a partisan legislature draws legislative and congressional districts and can do so in ways that ensure it maintains and perhaps even expands its power.

The U.S. is “pretty close to being the only democracy in the world” where participants in government control the redistricting process and set the rules, said Michael Miller, a political scientist who specializes in democratization at George Washington University. “For much of our country, it is still the parties who choose what is best for the current party in power.”

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 in general, other than the anti-discrimination provisions,” said Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign. Legal Center.

What it says is “not the same as saying that every citizen has the right to vote and participate in a free and fair electoral process. If I could wave a magic wand, I would start there,” said Nathan Stock, deputy 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 are quite unique to American democracy at this point.”

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 based on measures such as political culture and political participation, lists the US 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 disillusionment.”

There is one notable bright spot. Despite hurdles to voting and a presidential candidate selection process that could exclude much of the country, George Washington University’s Miller said the actual conduct of the election is “exceptional in the United States.”

That’s despite years of attacks from Trump, who falsely attributed his 2020 loss to widespread voter fraud and whose drumbeat of election lies has convinced a majority of Republicans to believe Biden was not legitimately elected.

“Despite growing distrust of the system due to extreme partisanship, there is essentially no evidence that there is any real fraud,” he said, pointing to the dedicated professionals who run the systems.

“Even established democracies have a much higher degree of error or even some degree of violence,” he said. “We don’t really have that yet anyway.”

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