In the wake of the 2016 election, a great deal of attention has been directed towards the processes by which we choose presidential nominees. Two independent political figures—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—rose to prominence in the 2016 election, each choosing a party to serve as their vehicle for a presidential campaign. Each established a strong populist, anti-establishment, and to some extent, anti-party, profile, albeit offering very different policy perspectives: they emphasized that they would run, and govern, “outside the system.” One, Donald Trump, had no prior elective or government experience, and he emerged from a complex process in which 17 candidates participated, some of whom but not others participated in a series of prime-time debates controlled by media organizations and not the parties. Yet, many Americans might be surprised that, for long stretches of our history, these outcomes would have been largely inconceivable under our presidential primary system.
Although the 2016 election has renewed interest in the presidential nominations process, and the legal structure through which presidential nominees are selected is one of the most important features in the design of American democracy, there has been very little writing in the law reviews on the subject. The New York University Law Review has chosen to host a symposium on the nominations process in order to start an important and timely discussion about the case for redesign of the system and, if so, how. The symposium will examine the historical trends in primary system design, and the role of parties in the nominations process and in the democratic process overall. It will invite debate over different primary structures (closed v. open primaries) and normative questions about the functions of the presidential primary election system, the desirable effects of various designs on voter engagement and participation, and the relative influence and responsibilities of political parties, candidates for the presidency, new forms of political organization such as Super PACs, and the media in our systems of democracy.