February 12, 2004
Reforms for the Presidential Nominating Process
BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
Even though two-thirds of states have yet to vote, the Democratic race for president may soon be over. Since his surprise win in Iowa, the rapid crunch of primaries has made Massachusetts Senator John Kerry's momentum nearly unstoppable.
But before turning to the general election we should reflect on whether the nominating process is fair, inclusive and effective. Reform is not far-fetched. In 2000 Republicans nearly overhauled their primary schedule, and Democrats plan a major review by 2006.
Some aspects of the current system work. There is a meaningful range of views that showcase real diversity of opinion, in sharp contrast to our many elections that feature lopsided runaways or cagey candidates muddying their positions. The intense focus on Iowa and New Hampshire encourages candidates to have sustained contact with ordinary voters rather than wage campaigns solely from television studios. And potential nominees must withstand intense scrutiny and challenges that test their mettle.
But we can do better. Here's our wish list of reforms for future primaries:
* Rotate opening states: Iowa and New Hampshire should not be the sole focus of candidates' grassroots campaigning. Different states have different interests and concerns, particularly ones with bigger cities and more racial diversity. We should rotate the first states by holding a lottery among a pool of small and mid-size states.
* Start later: Some misguided party leaders may want an early nominee, but hardly anyone else yearns for a nine-month general election campaign of sniping and personal attacks. Primaries should run from March to June.
* An inclusive schedule: Republicans in 2000 nearly adopted the "Delaware plan" that would give more states and their voters a meaningful role. After the opening primaries, small states would vote in a "mini Super Tuesday," followed by a break that would allow voters to give frontrunners a second look. Bigger states would then vote, followed by more breaks, until finally the biggest states would vote in a decisive final round.
* Require full representation: In Democratic primaries and caucuses, candidates win a fair share of convention delegates through full representation, where winning 25 percent of the vote earns at least 25 percent of delegates. Republicans mostly use winner-take-all primaries, where the first-place finisher receives all delegates even if winning far less than a majority. Winner-take-all distorts results and can allow an unrepresentative candidate to win big when the opposition vote is split among several candidates. Both parties should require full representation and consider lowering the 15% threshold of support now necessary for Democrats to win delegates.
* Adopt Iowa's "second choice" system: The Iowa caucuses showcase a more representative method by allowing voters the chance to cast alternate choices in case their first choice can't win delegates. Every participant ultimately elects a delegate, and candidates have incentives to reach out to supporters of other candidates. In contrast, more than a quarter of voters in the eleven primaries and caucuses after Iowa supported candidates who failed to reach the 15 percent necessary to win delegates, and absentee voters lost out if their mail ballot's first choice dropped out before their state's primary. A better way in the primaries is to allow voters to rank candidates so that if their first choice falls short, their runoff rankings can help more viable candidates, similar to instant runoff voting.
* Remember the youth: While their turnout remains low, young voters are participating in bigger numbers in 2004. New Hampshire's set of rules helps explain why. Voters can register on the day of the primary, and still vote in the primary if registered as an independent. And youth-oriented debates were spotlighted. Young people are more likely to be unregistered, are disproportionately registered as independents, and are more motivated when candidates address their concerns.
* Fix the financing: When most leading candidates opt out of public financing, the system is broken. We should provide a four-to-one public match for small donations and give participating candidates additional funds when opponents opt out.
We deserve elections where more of us can make a difference, where choices are meaningful, and where our votes count. Political parties can adopt most of these changes on their own without waiting for Congress to pass new legislation. Let's push for reform before 2008.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, www.fairvote.org. Steven Hill is the Center's senior analyst and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of Americas Winner Take All Politics," www.FixingElections.com. Readers may write to them at: The Center for Voting & Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912.
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