Primary agenda should benefit the nation first

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published August 11th 2007 in The Miami Herald
Florida will be charged a penalty by the Democratic and Republican parties if it goes through with its plan to hold presidential primary in January 2008. The problem is, it may be willing to pay.

''These are automatic sanctions,'' said Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean. ``Without these rules, all of the states would start leapfrogging.''

Dean was referring to this year's tidal wave of states all moving their primaries earlier to Feb. 5, in a desperate bid to get their share of political limelight. Never before has there been such a front-loaded and chaotic primary schedule, and while pundits will have a hard time predicting the results, the potential effects on our democracy are clear.

The new crush of primaries means half the country will have voted by February. Depending on how the power of Iowa and New Hampshire is altered by the scheduling change, we may have a nominee decided a three-quarters of a year before the general election.

Alternatively, we may suffer a de facto national primary, favoring big spenders and crushing candidates who haven't had a chance to get their message out.

Dean would try to avoid even more leapfrogging by punitively unseating Florida's delegates to the Democratic convention next summer. But Florida knows the value of an early primary springs from media attention, not delegates. And because it's such an important swing state in the general election, we would see a heck of a fight at the convention should the party try to insult Florida.

In every area of policy, rules that are all stick and no carrot never work as well as solutions that create incentives. Penalties can seldom eliminate a popular product. That's why illegal goods go underground and circulate on the black market rather than the legitimate one.

Good policies make the desired outcome pay. As both parties consider what to do about Florida, they cannot stop at the penalties, which the Sunshine State seems willing and able to flout. To prevent states from leapfrogging, they need an incentive, and the only meaningful incentive is that they will be given a fair say by adhering to party rules.

Every state must see the same incentive. Take the classic economic example of overfishing, which eventually destroys the livelihoods of the fishermen themselves. The fisherman have no incentive to conserve fish, because none can expect their neighbor to do the same, and the fish continue to dwindle. In the end, everyone loses by thinking only of themselves. Similarly, when states have zero incentive to schedule their primaries according to a sane calendar, they will all act alone and rush to the front, hurting the whole country.

States at risk

Both parties need a nomination schedule that unites our states and does not play favorites. Moving one or two states around just won't accomplish that, and in fact could spur on other leapfroggers just because they were overlooked. We need a primary schedule that gives every state its say, and every legislator should know that rocking the boat puts all 50 states at risk.

States must see a collective as well as an individual benefit to reform. A good start would be a bipartisan commission, backed by Congress, that would recommend real change on the national scale. Cooperation can pay, too.

Ryan O'Donnell runs for FairVote, a nonprofit election reform group in Maryland.