John Oliver Breaks Down the Lunacy of the Presidential Primary Process

John Oliver
On "Last Week Tonight," John Oliver attempted to unravel the presidential primary process. YouTube

Most Americans concede that we don't totally understand how the presidential primary process works—the primaries, the caucuses, the delegates and superdelegates. On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver makes it clear that the system is far more broken than most of us realize.

As Oliver points out, the process wasn't always this convoluted. Up until 1968, party leaders selected their respective nominees. That year, though, the Democratic leadership nominated Hubert Humphrey, who hadn't even participated in the primaries. This infuriated the party base, and in the ensuing years both Democrats and Republicans revamped their selection process.

It's been almost 50 years since that 1968 primary, which means that each party has had nearly half a century in which to make their candidate selection process as complicated as humanly possible. John Oliver tried to unpack it as best he could during Last Week Tonight's feature segment.

Caucuses vs. Primaries

Some states have caucuses, some have primaries and some have both. If your state has a caucus, it means you must sit through a meeting before casting your vote, whereas primaries only require voters to show up and bubble in the candidate of their choice. Most people with busy lives prefer the latter option, of course. In 2012, GOP primary turnout was 19 percent, while caucus turnout was only 3 percent. This is not good.

The state of Washington has both a caucus and a primary. In fact, the primary is being held this Tuesday, but its results are irrelevant as the state's delegates already made up their minds following the caucus results. In Nevada, the process is so complicated that Oliver's relatively straightforward explanation of its many counterintuitive layers read as a comedic bit. Politifact recently investigated claims that Nevada Democratic leadership doctored caucus results. They found no evidence of corruption, but were able to conclude that the "arcane party structures don't reflect how most people assume presidential selection works." This is also not good.

Delegates vs. Superdelegates

Delegates are representatives who vote based on their state's caucus or primary results. Superdelegates are high-ranking members of the party who can vote for whomever they wish. Superdelegates, which factor far more prominently into the Democratic selection process, are troubling because of their power to override the results of primaries or caucuses, which is not good and also doesn't seem very democratic.

Republicans, on the other hand, have rigged the system so that its delegates (the regular ones) only have to align themselves with whomever their citizens have selected in the first round of convention voting. After that, they are free to do as they choose. This is why, until recently, many establishment Republicans held out hope that a Trump nomination could be prevented through a "contested convention." Add to this the fact that when people in some states are asked to vote for delegates, they often have no way of knowing which candidate these delegates support because the ballot doesn't actually say. Again, not good.

What can be done?

This is only a surface-level examination of how needlessly complicated the primary process is. And the more complicated something is, the more opportunity there is for obfuscation and, ultimately, corruption. Even someone with no knowledge of how the process works can look at its many glaring discrepancies and understand it is in grave need of reform. "Almost every part of this process is difficult to defend," says Oliver.

It stays this way, though, because after a nominee is selected, nobody really cares anymore. As Donald Trump said during a recent rally in West Virginia, "You've been hearing me say it's a rigged system, but now I don't say it anymore because I won. Now I don't care."

Oliver proposesthat we set aside a day early next year to bombard party leaders with emails demanding reform. He suggests February 2. "That will be easy to remember, because it's Groundhog Day, which does seem appropriate," says Oliver. "Unless this primary process is fixed, we are all destined to live through the same nightmare scenario over and over again until the end of fucking time."