Five ways the Democratic Primary was "rigged" against Bernie Sanders

Jeremy Sarka · Tuesday, June 7th, 2016 at 10:30 AM PDT

On Monday, June 6th, the Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee, partly on the strength of pledged delegates from the Puerto Rico caucus and partly on the strength of additional super-delegate endorsements—the evening before the (nearly) last round of primaries. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and his supporters have been arguing that the primary process has been "rigged" in Clinton's favor—an accusation that establishment figures have pushed back against vehemently. The establishment's argument generally boils down to something like this: "Sanders' claim that the primary is rigged is an attempt to deny the fact that a majority of Democrats support Hillary Clinton." While I won't deny that a majority of the Democrats who voted in the primaries voted for Clinton, I do challenge the assumption that the primary results truly reflect the preferences of the Democratic electorate as a whole, and that a fairer primary process might not have turned out differently. Here's just five aspects of the primary process that may have biased the results against Bernie Sanders:

1. Media Bias

Throughout the campaign, most of the media—even left-leaning media outlets like—have been biased against Bernie Sanders. Initially, the media neglected to even cover the Sanders campaign. Once it become obvious that Sanders had a real base of support, the media began attacking him as an unrealistic, unelectable, and a fantasist. Later in the campaign, the media marginalized Sanders by claiming (inaccurately) that his supporters were exclusively white men. More importantly, the media (in spite of their much-talked-about anti-Clinton bias) consistently failed to challenge the political messages emanating from the Clinton campaign—particularly the claim that she was more “electable” than Bernie Sanders, in spite of her much higher unfavorable ratings and consistently weaker polling against potential Republican nominees. The most innocent explanation is simply that the political commentariat collectively agrees with Hillary Clinton (that is, by and large, they are cautious, pragmatic, passively socially liberal, pro-business, and favor an interventionist foreign policy) and disagrees with Bernie Sanders (who is radical, idealistic, actively socially liberal, anti-business, and anti-interventionist.) A more sinister explanation would be that the political commentariat collectively see Bernie Sanders as a threat to their position, and created a narrative designed to damage voters' perception of him. No matter what the explanation, the media has undeniably treated Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton unequally.

2. The Primary Calendar

Election reformers have long complained about "front-loading"—the trend of pushing more and more of the primaries towards the beginning of the year. Front-loading generally benefits candidates with greater name recognition (like Hillary Clinton,) but this year the primary calendar was especially beneficial to Clinton because it put her strongest region, the South, nearly at the beginning of the election cycle. Clinton's deep ties to Southern communities gave her a huge advantage there—one the helped her across all demographic lines. One of the Sanders campaign's biggest problems was their difficulty connecting with African American voters—a problem that they only began to overcome near the end of the campaign. If Bernie Sanders had had more time to take his message to African American communities in the South (and more time to learn how to make his message resonate with African Americans) the outcome of the primaries could have been very different. Instead, Sanders' crushing defeats in the South in February and March—which were entirely attributed to African Americans, despite the fact that Clinton won white voters in every Southern state except North Carolina (often by double digit margins)—seriously undermined voters perception of him as a viable candidate, and allowed the media to create a narrative of racial bias that seriously hampered his efforts to reach out to communities of color.

3. Closed Contests

It is well documented that Sanders did best in states that allow independents to vote in the Democratic primaries. Polling organizations like Gallup and Pew have demonstrated that most independent voters are actually consistent supporters of one of the two major parties. Closed contests (where only registered party members are allowed to participate) perpetuate the notion of political parties as exclusive organizations, and disenfranchise voters who might support a particular party in November, but choose not to register with that party. To make matters worse, many states that hold closed contests also make it very difficult to change your party registration (like in New York, where you had to change your party registration six months in advance of the primary.) The so-called Democratic Party should not be in the business of denying people the opportunity to participate in democracy.

4. Limited Choices

According to Wikipedia, more than 50 people (apart from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders) were considered potential candidates for the 2016 Democratic party nomination—only a handful chose to run. It seems like, at some point after the 2008 election, the Democratic Party leadership decided that Hillary Clinton was going to be the party's 2016 presidential nominee. Either because of direct pressure from party leaders, or simply the overwhelming impression of Clinton's inevitability, almost no one besides Sanders decided to challenge her in the primary (and I don't think those challengers ever thought they had a chance to begin with). Of course, the party leaders' assumption that Clinton would coast to the nomination proved to be completely wrong. Sander's strength (and Clinton's weakness) reflect disaffection with the Democratic establishment, changing attitudes within the Democratic party, and growing schisms between the groups that make up the Democratic coalition. In light of all of this, it seems clear that Clinton would not have done as well (and possibly would not have won) if she had had to face a challenger (or challengers) with more credibility within the Democratic Party—especially more diverse candidates like Cory Booker or Julian Castro. Of course, a wider field might not have been good for Sanders either, since he might have had to compete with other leftist candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown, but voters would surely have benefitted from the broader debate and range of candidates. Instead, the party leadership tried to decide the outcome in advance, which didn't really help anyone.

5. Low Turnout and Restrictive Voter Laws

This isn't exactly something that Hillary Clinton (or anyone else) really has much control over: but it is highly likely (despite what some have argued) that low voter turnout benefitted Hillary Clinton. But wait, didn't Sanders do best in the low-turnout caucuses? Yes, but that didn't really help him—it made his support look less legitimate, and distracted from the fact that primary turnout in most states was extremely low. Sanders probably could have won many of the Western states even if they had held primaries (although not by such huge margins)—look at Oregon as an example—and the media would not have been able to use the "caucus effect" to diminish the significance of Sanders' wins in those states. If you ignore the caucuses and just look at the primaries, Sanders generally did better in the primaries with the highest voter turnout, and Clinton did better in the primaries with the lowest. Which brings us to the darkest, dirtiest secret of the 2016 campaign: Clinton almost certainly (although not intentionally) benefitted from restrictive voter laws, which have the greatest impact on the poorest members of American society—Bernie Sanders' core constituency. We need to address the barriers that keep people from participating in our democracy, and Hillary Clinton, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, should be calling them out—not trying to claim that winning a very low-turnout election tells us anything about the whole of the Democratic Party.

Jeremy Sarka is a writer, artist, programmer, attempted creative professional, and disillusioned Millenial.