How Gamification Is Still F#$%&ing Up Our Elections

With democracy at stake, our leaders play a dangerous game

Sam Liberty


Over the summer I noticed some troubling things about how game design was interfering with our political process and creating some very strange behaviors among our politicians.

These observations were chiefly about debate qualifying criteria in the 2024 Republican primary.

At the time of writing, those debates are over, and the primaries of both parties are in full swing. However, the broken game of party primaries is still massively f#%&ing up our elections.

Only now, instead of influencing how candidates campaign, the rules of the game are being applied in an unequal way to influence directly who will be each party’s nominee, leading to an outcome that is undesirable to nearly everyone in the country.

Winner Take All?

The first thing to note is that the two major parties run their primaries differently. The Democratic primary is, for the most part, proportional. So if you win 20% of the votes in a state, you take home about 20% of the delegates up for grabs.

This leads to outcomes where candidates can eek out small wins that snowball into larger ones, playing “small ball” and targeting specific states where they can win big. It theoretically keeps the primary competitive for longer and is moderately more democratic.

The Republican primary, on the other hand, leans toward “winner take all” or “winner take most” contests. In this type of primary, whoever wins a plurality of the votes (meaning more than any other candidate in the race, even if it is not greater than 50%) takes home most or in some cases all the delegates up for grabs.

This leads to more drastic and cut-throat primaries that consolidate political mass and momentum swiftly. These types of primaries are punishing to smaller campaigns and make it infeasible for a candidate to build up momentum once the primary has started. It rewards the largest political force in the race, instead.

Winner Makes the Rules?

Now, you might be thinking, “OK, this is interesting, but what difference does this make? And where do these weird rules come from anyway?”

Glad you asked. You see, the rules that govern a political party’s primaries come from a mixture of the states, the states parties, and the national committee of the party (the DNC and RNC). The DNC and RNC control the order of elections and influence the state parties’ rules, for instance whether there will be a caucus or a primary election. And, critically, how the delegates will be awarded.

Generally speaking, the national committees of the two major parties make rules to ensure the primaries are well-run, fair, good for the national party, and good for the state parties. They are supposed to remain neutral in terms of candidates, not supporting one over the other.

However, this year, in both parties, we see certain candidates wielding outsized power over their party’s primary rules. These pols, Donald Trump and Joe Biden (and the people around them) have made moves, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt, to stack the deck in their own favor. This has led to some pretty strange outcomes.

1. Disenfranchising New Hampshire Voters

New Hampshire is proudly “first in the nation” when it comes to primaries. In fact, the state of NH actually has a law requiring them to be first.

If you’ve been paying attention to the primaries, you will recall that they were indeed first. But something strange happened on the Democratic side: Joe Biden won the primary… as a write-in candidate.

Why wasn’t Biden on the ballot?

The reason is as strange as it is cynical. Earlier this cycle, the DNC announced that despite NH’s first in the nation status, they would move South Carolina up in the primary order to be the first in the Democratic race.

This was transparently to the benefit of Biden, a weak incumbent.

South Carolina is a state that Biden famously shows strength in. After all, winning the 2020 primary there rocketed him to the head of the pack, going from a distant third place to the unquestioned leader.

So by making South Carolina first, Biden would be able to demonstrate his strength against any potential challenger. No serious Democrat would think to challenge the President knowing they faced imminent defeat in the first contest.

So what happened in New Hampshire?

Because the state, by law, must be first, they insisted on holding their primary before South Carolina’s. In censure, the DNC stripped them of their delegates and refused to add Biden to the ballot.

This created an opportunity for others to challenge him in the state, but even if a potential challenger won, they would not receive any delegates. But since Biden won, this move ended up denying him the delegates. If you think this is ironic, keep reading.

2. Giving Trump A Super Tuesday Trump Card

While the Democrats were reshuffling the deck to benefit Biden, the RNC, run by Trump-loyalist Ronna (Romney) McDaniel was pulling its own chicanery.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans had no incumbent in the race. We can argue that Trump is a defacto incumbent, having recently been president, but in theory this was anybody’s race. Especially considering how unpopular Trump was and remains with the general electorate, and especially considering all the vulnerabilities he shows (age, toxic behavior, 91 felony counts), a capable Republican opponent would pose a risk to his renomination.

The fullness of time shows that Trump’s vulnerabilities were not so acute when it comes to Republican voters, but before a single vote was cast, the RNC had tipped the scale strongly in Trump’s favor.

I mentioned above that Republican primaries tend to be winner-take-all or winner-take-most. This cycle, the RNC went through all the Super Tuesday states and systematically changed the rules, creating many more winner-take-all races.

Truer than it meant to be, because the Joker is wild.

This means that a candidate with a small plurality of the electorate could easily sweep the Super Tuesday states and walk way with ALL of the delegates! This would ensure their status as nominee.

Trump famously has a high floor and a low ceiling, meaning that although a lot of people have a problem with him, his die-hard fans are extremely die-hard. This 30%+ of “Always Trump” MAGA Republicans is a sizable enough force that no matter what happens in the election, Trump would be sure to win his plurality in a crowded field.

Now that the primary has come down to a 1-on-1 race, Haley needs to come from behind. If her strategy is to amass enough delegates to be a credible alternative to Trump, she will need, well, delegates to do this. Instead, the new rules make it highly likely that she will come out of Super Tuesday with almost no delegates, and zero momentum.

3. Declaring A Winner Before The Votes Are Cast

This week, something unprecedented in politics happened. The RNC verged on declaring Trump the presumptive nominee with only 33 delegates. To put that into perspective, there are 1,215 total delegates in play, so Trump only has 0.027% of the total delegates, far, far short of the 51% needed to win the nomination.

So why would they consider doing this? And what would the effect be?

It’s clear that the RNC, a supposedly neutral arbiter of the primaries, is instead aligned with Trump and pursuing his best interests, not the party’s. They’re under pressure from the Trump campaign to tip the scales in his favor. Since they are in control of the primary process, the signals they send are strong ones.

Imagine a football game where the teams are locked in a high-stakes play in the red zone, but the referee blows the whistle before the play ends. Or perhaps a boxer is knocked to the canvas but instead of a 10 count, the ref signals to ring the bell after he counts to 1.

This is essentially what’s happening here. In a game, the referee is supposed to be a fair witness, ensuring everyone has an equal chance under the rules. The RNC is supposed to play this role in the primary. Instead, they’re whistling the play dead basically right after the snap.

They haven’t actually done this, yet, but keep watching for what they do after the South Carolina race, which Trump will probably win (but more narrowly than he’d like). Declaring Trump the presumptive nominee before Super Tuesday will certainly help him clench those winner-take-all delegates.

BREAKING: Literally as I was writing this article, Ronna McDaniel announced she would resign from her position as chair of the RNC, making way for a handpicked replacement from Donald Trump. The likely replacement is Michael Whatley, a vocal supporter of the former president who claims the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden and the Democrats. This hardcore MAGA RNC chair would likely take further steps to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Watch closely for more out-of-bounds moves.

4. “New Hampshire Only Counts If I Win”

Those following the news (or who read the opening of this article) will recall that Biden did eventually win the New Hampshire primary with a write-in campaign. He did this handily, despite not being on the ballot, silencing his only serious challenger, Dean Phillips. (Phillips is serious insofar as he is a sitting congressman.)

Of course, since the DNC stripped New Hampshire of their delegates, he won’t receive credit. It was a win in name only. It didn’t count.

Except, now that New Hampshire is in the rear-view mirror, Jim Clyburn and Jaime Harrison (the chair of the DNC) have publicly said that maybe they will count the New Hampshire delegates after all. Sort of a “no harm no foul” approach to the primary.

DNC Chair Jaime Harrison

The message is clear: if our candidate wins, the rules can be bent or ignored. If our candidate loses, then he is insulated from consequences by rules designed to favor him.

5. Totally Invalidating The Nevada Primary

Many people don’t even know there was a Republican primary in Nevada on Tuesday, February 6th. There was no campaign for it, Donald Trump wasn’t even on the ballot, and the “winner” of the primary was “None of these candidates.” In fact, if you do know there was a primary, the only thing you might know about it is that “no one” won.

Why? Because it was a primary for nothing. It awarded zero delegates.

Last year, the Nevada state Republican Committee made some odd but easily explainable changes to the primary rules. The state-mandated primary election would be held on Tuesday, but be non-binding. Instead, a caucus, held the following Thursday would award all the delegates.

This is because the Nevada Republican Party has been completely dominated by MAGA loyalists, and they redesigned the primary to favor their guy.

A bonanza of rigged games are to be found in the Trump Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, NV

If you’re not familiar with how caucuses work, they are not typical elections. They are more like meetings where everyone gets in a big gymnasium and they discuss who they support and why before a series of votes (sometimes by ballot, sometimes by show of hands, sometimes by voice). An official caucus leader tabulates the votes, and it continues until a winner is selected.

Although not everybody is able to commit to a time-consuming caucus, this is supposed to create civic discussion and engagement. However, this is *not* how the Nevada caucus operated. Instead, in addition to the above, certain people were allowed to show up any time during the caucus and drop off locked-in ballots that could not be changed.

Which certain people? Registered Republicans (same day registration is strictly barred, after all that might help Haley muster independents and Democrats) who make free time to do so within a very specific window.

There were other new rules in this caucus that also all favor the defacto incumbent. The Nevada Republicans banned the use of superPAC money to influence the caucus. At the time the rules were made, Ron DeSantis’ “Never Back Down” PAC was flush with cash and poised to flex its muscles.

DeSantis addresses a crowd, announced by PAC-fueled pyrotechnics

Additionally, to take part in the caucuses, candidates would need to pay an extortion fee of $55,000 (remember, no PAC money), which at the time of registration was a significant expense that not every campaign was able to pay.

To put things into perspective, if every state required this pay-to-play fee, the cost for a campaign would be almost $3,000,000 per candidate! This is more than some candidates, such as Asa Hutchinson, raised in total.

For this reason, Haley, the only remaining Trump challenger, stayed out of the caucus, and the state. Instead, she spent the week in New York and Los Angeles raising funds she doesn’t need, a bizarre course of action under any other circumstances when an early primary state is at stake.

The caucus happened a few days ago, so we now know the results: a massive Trump blow out to the tune of 99.1%. His only opponent in the caucus, a fifth-stringer named Ryan Binkley, couldn’t crack 1%.

Yet, turnout was microscopic. Trump received just 55,000 votes… significantly fewer than what “None” earned in Tuesday’s fake primary.

This was the exact intent of the rule change: putting the fate of Nevada’s delegates into the hands of a rarified few, die-hard Trump supporters.

End Game

These political tricks are absurd, and in the end it’s impossible to really tell their effect on the elections. However, we shouldn’t ignore the political dangers of putting the rules of the game in the hands of its biggest players.

The preferred outcome of the parties’ national committees, namely a Trump/Biden rematch, is an idea that’s alarming to the vast majority of Americans (though the reasons for this alarm vary from person to person).

It’s possible that these two men are the best options their party has to offer. After all, they’re set to win their primaries.

It’s also possible that the primaries are rigged games designed to benefit the political fortunes of those at the top at the expense of the American people.

What’s certain is this:

At a time when faith in America’s election systems is at an all time low and democracy is at stake, the people in power are playing a dangerous game.

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I am not the only person talking about these issues. Many of the individual stories cited in this article were originally brought to my attention through podcasts. If you want to follow these stories, get the rest on to Hacks On Tap, Pod Save America, and The Bulwark Podcast.

For more on the concept of “the fair witness” read The Well Played Game by Bernard De Koven, who has also spoken on the politics of play.

Sam Liberty is a gamification and serious game designer. He is the consulting game designer of “Fight For America!” an immersive art installation that remediates the events of January 6th 2021 through gameplay. He teaches Game Design at Northeastern University.



Sam Liberty

Lead Game Designer at Sidekick Health. Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact