Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Doing away with the political primary machine

For almost two centuries in New York City, the political machine known as Tammany Hall played a significant role in the election of Democrats in the city and beyond. However, it gained enough enemies and flouted enough laws that it eventually lost power and dissolved in the 1960s.

Today, the term political machine is used in dismissive (and inaccurate) terms to describe the two major parties, as well as factions within those parties that seek to control the terms of debate. But really, those days are long gone.

Still, remnants linger, and one of those is the presidential primary system. That's not to say that the primaries are controlled by 21st Century versions of Tammany Hall. But their schedules -- in many ways -- are, and the result has been the disenfranchisement of half the nation in the selection of the presidential candidates. It's time for a complete overhaul of the primary process.

As recently as 1976, a party's nomination for president was unclear heading into the nominating convention. Today, the nominee is decided more than seven months before the general election, selected by a handful of states scattered throughout the country.

Oh sure, all the states get a primary election, but by Super Tuesday in March, slightly more than half the states have voted. It's clear who has the momentum, and it's clear that, despite the fact that twenty-some states have yet to voice their opinion, the nominating convention is a mere formality. (John Kerry had the 2004 nomination wrapped up by March 11.)

And those states that have traditionally held the first primaries -- i.e. Iowa and New Hampshire -- insist that it's always been that way and always will. New Hampshire even passed a 1977 law stating it would always be first, which has forced the state to move its primary up by two months since then.

Some have bellyached that the Electoral College disenfranchises voters because it allows a candidate to win a majority of the popular vote but still lose the election. The main problem with their argument is that the Electoral College is written into the Constitution. However, the good ol' boy network that has taken control of the primary system -- which seems to be the same group that refuses to let the Division I football teams play for a national championship -- is not written into law.

Here's my idea: the time has come for Congress to step in and establish a regional primary system. The system would divide the country into 10 regions, with a primary election each week starting in February. This would allow the candidates to focus on five neighboring states, discussing the issues that are important to that region, followed by a vote. A region of neighboring states would allow a deeper examination of that region's issues than a Super Tuesday that included several states scattered around the country.

But this is different than the current system in that the results of each vote would not be released until all 10 regions had voted, which would be in mid-April. In this way, each state would have an equal say in the selection of the candidate. In this way, no candidate could run away with the nomination simply because he'd won a couple of early primaries. Voters throughout the country could still find out what the candidates were saying in other regions, and could base their opinions on what they heard throughout the country, but the candidates couldn't change their story depending on their finish the previous week. This would impact fund-raising only from the standpoint that candidates would receive donations based on their platforms and their personal impact, not because people wanted to jump on their bandwagon.

Are there some holes in my suggestion? Of course. The main ones I see are media-driven: 1) Polls. You couldn't outlaw polling because of First Amendment issues, and a candidate who was first in the polls would likely draw some advantage; and 2) Early leaks. I'm tempted to make one person responsible for the ballots, and make the penalty so severe that that person isn't tempted to leak; but the flipside is that you want some oversight so you know the results haven't been tampered with until they're released.

But those issues (and others I haven't considered) aside, the current system is too good ol' boy and too elitist to let it stand.

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  • At 12/19/2007 12:47 PM, Blogger gullyborg said…

    Here's my plan:

    First off, we need to get the media and the people themselves to stop paying attention to candidates before the actual election year, after the Christmas/New years holidays.


    No straw polls until February. And no caucuses. Every state needs to go to a true primary.

    Take the ten smallest states. They all have primaries the first Tuesday of March.

    If you look at the ten smallest states, there is a lot of geographical and ideological diversity. We are talking about Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, the Dakotas... for one candidate to do well in all these states, he needs to campaign efficiently and have a unifying message.

    Then, on the first Tuesday of April, May, June, and July, have another batch of 10 primaries, by size of states, with the 10 biggest states last.

    Because bigger states have more say, the impact of wins in earlier primaries is smaller. A candidate can build momentum in early states, but if he does poorly in the last primary, he can still lose.

    But the early states DO have a lot of importance in narrowing the field and shaping opinion, so they don't seem irrelevant next to the big states.

    With a month in between each batch of 10, there is plenty of time for candidates to travel, make news, and for people to evaluate. It's not like there is a mad rush to move from one campaign to another without a chance for anyone to stop and think.

    After July, there might be a primary winner. Or, there might not. With the big states all last, and it entirely possible that going into the last primary there could be several viable candidates, it is possible the vote on the last day could be split.

    That means convention, and I am ok with that. Have the convention in August, and if there is no majority candidate by then, have a brokered convention where the uncommitted delegates can form coalitions and put forward a unity candidate.

    Then September can be the national campaign month. October can be the surprise month. Then we vote in November.

    That's how it should be done.


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