The word “rigged” graces every noun in sight. It's the “salted caramel” of the 2016 presidential primary — it might have made sense to flavor things with it in the beginning, until you see Salted Caramel Pringles on the shelf and wonder what the word even means anymore. It started out as rhetorical garnish for Bernie Sanders’s economic mission statement: The economy is rigged. The campaign finance system is rigged. We are following the rules, and trying to get ahead, and the system is rigged against us.
In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that the word would infiltrate the election so much that the entire process itself became suspect. Donald Trump spent weeks talking about how he was doomed to lose from the beginning. “Our Republican system is absolutely rigged,” he complained, after failing to fully take part in the delegate process that has governed primaries for decades, and performing badly in states where he didn’t bother to organize. "When we talk about a rigged system, it's also important to understand how the Democratic Convention works," Bernie Sanders said at the National Press Club in early May. Even the Hillary Clinton campaigned joined in; her spokesperson told CNN, “When you talk about rigging the system, that’s what Sen. Sanders is trying to do now … go out and talk about the idea that he wants to go out and flip superdelegates and get him to overturn the will of the people as expressed through who’s won the most contests.”
Like most buzzwords repeated regularly by candidates, voters have adopted the phrase too. One man unable to vote in the New York primary because he wasn’t registered as a Republican told the New York Times, “It’s a rigged system." A Change.org petition with more than 28,000 signatures asks the Bernie Sanders campaign to address “blatantly rigged” results in several states. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from April showed that 51 percent of Americans think that the presidential election is rigged. At this point, the meaning of “rigged” has stretched so much as to not mean anything at all. A word that once sought to condemn Sisyphean unfairness has become the universal loser’s lament.
There is widespread frustration about how we choose our president, but the outcome was not preordained. A year ago, when we last spoke of the election results being just that, the complaint was that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were walking down a cross-country red carpet on their way to a coronation. Donald Trump, who we were promised would never win a primary, is now the only Republican presidential candidate left in the race. Bernie Sanders is still far away from the Democratic nomination, but, in true Bernie Sanders fashion, he got closer than anyone imagined was possible. (But not that close; Sanders is further behind than Clinton was when she lost to Barack Obama in 2008.)
All of the voters who fear the election is rigged, regardless of who they hope wins in November, act like the injustices of the party system are new evils, spawned to injure their candidate of choice this election cycle, instead of a process that has been picking nominees for years. No one noticed because hardly anyone votes in primaries. Annoyed voters unfamiliar with complicated primary rules are vexed in retrospect that no one told them how to play while competing against teams that have committed the terms of engagement to memory. Is a game of Clue rigged if you thought we were playing Risk the whole time, protecting the billiards room from invaders?
Sanders voters have also been selectively frustrated about the many confusing primary rules. They have not railed against caucuses, which tend to feature extremely low turnout and are so long that many people with inflexible work hours or busy lives are unable to take part. Of course, Sanders has done exceedingly well in caucuses. Using “rigged” is a political act as much as the politics the phrase seeks to call out.
Most of the voters upset about arcane primary rules didn’t need much convincing that voting was a waste of time, given their already dismal opinion of the institutions these candidates seek to oversee. Just 10 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good job, according to the latest Economist/YouGov poll. People have told Gallup for months that dissatisfaction with government is the biggest non-economic problem facing the country. Only 35 percent of voters think that primaries are a good way of picking a candidate, per the Pew Research Center. Another Pew study shows that 64 percent of Americans think “their side” loses more than it wins in politics.
Meanwhile, the inevitable entropy of political catchphrases is making a potent word lose force when used in instances that actually make sense. In Wisconsin, those same young voters afraid the election is getting stolen have to deal with voter ID laws that add another time-consuming layer to the voting process. A Republican representative in the state said last month that he assumed the legislation would help his party win in November. State legislators still get in trouble for trying to gerrymander their way into favorable electoral outcomes.
In the exceptionally boring, if heartwarming, movie version of this election, where Donald Trump is played by Robert Redford and Bernie Sanders is played by Chris Pratt, the primary would end with frustrated voters lobbying individual states to change the election policies that irritate them. Independents in New York would pressure officials to abandon the closed Republican and Democratic primaries — or at least make the deadline for registering the same year as the election. Maybe they’d even push the state to make same-day registration possible, allowing parties to keep closed primaries while still opening them up to the whole electorate. Groups could also pressure legislatures to adopt automatic voter registration, so excited supporters wouldn’t miss deadlines. Republicans could try to change the complex delegate process in states that forgo primaries or caucuses altogether, so that candidates who don’t have expert consultants and operators on their respective teams can still accumulate delegates (something that party leadership is going to fight hard to keep after Trump’s victories this year). Voters could lobby the parties to hold lots of debates during times when more voters are likely to tune in.
The election may not be rigged, but there are plenty of ways that voters could work to make them more open in the future. However, they seem unlikely to do so, at least right now. Those voters chanting “Bernie or Bust” or planning to vote for Donald and no one else still have no faith in the government’s ability to fix things. They believe in candidates who've promised to battle a system they condemn as irredeemably broken, and may not be interested in taking part in a political process that doesn’t include these candidates — even though presidents don’t have much power to accomplish much by themselves, despite their reputation, and a President Bernie Sanders or a President Donald Trump would both be doomed to fall short, just like all of their predecessors.
Thanks to our founding fathers, change is slow, unsexy, and takes years to accomplish. Thanks to the political parties, we have a primary system that favors partisans who understand confusing rules. You can blame those two factors for rigging the whole dang system, or you can try to work within the system we’re stuck with and change it. It may not be uplifting, but it works — there’s a reason that most of the candidates who have won elections have taken that route for decades. Now, all you have to do is keep people excited about this issue for the next four years.
No wonder this is hard.