Political Conventions Necessary?
Gov. Howard Dean M.D.
As the Democratic Convention begins this week, followed by the Republicans in
September, journalists who are bored with the scripted proceedings will write
opinion pieces about behind-the-scenes dealings which may or may not be going on
and will raise questions about why conventions are even newsworthy.
Since 1968, conventions have been lackluster precisely because the choices of
nominees are far more likely to be made by voters in either party than they are
by backroom deals. This is a huge step forward, but it is also ancient history
for most political reporters and for a great deal of the voting public.
A huge reform coming out of 1968 was the requirement, at least for the
Democrats, that delegations reflect the diversity of the electorate, but we now
take that for granted as well.
So we are stuck with institutions that are boring because they have outlived
their purpose, which was to cement backroom deals. I have some suggestions to
make them more relevant:
First the process is still too closed. While Independents can vote in a few
primaries, they ought to be able to vote in all primaries, choosing between the
Republican and Democratic primaries in each state, but not, of course, voting in
both. The effect will be to get a nominee who can appeal to the largest group of
American voters, those who identify with neither party.
Second, we ought to use instant runoff voting first in primaries. Instant runoff
voting asks people to rank candidates in order of preference. In elections where
there are multiple candidates, winners frequently emerge with vote totals in the
20-40 percent range. Being allowed to specify a second choice if your candidate
does not finish in the top two will consolidate the vote and build consensus.
Instant runoff voting will also narrow the field quickly. The jury will not be
out until after November, of course, but I think the accelerated primary system
in 2004 made a lot of voters in states after Super Tuesday feel like their votes
did not matter. Having instant runoff voting instead of the accelerated primary
system would not subject voters to the steady drumbeat of weekly primaries where
there is little time for voters to get to know the candidates. Yet, we could
still have an early nominee, who would have time to unify the parties after the
There are many other good reforms we should enact. Public financing of
campaigns, which has worked so well in Maine and Arizona, should be applied
nationally. Spending limits per candidate, which as of this writing would likely
require a constitutional amendment, ought to be put in place.
What would happen if all these changes and more were made? We would still need
the conventions, but they would be used for networking, for talking to interest
groups, for electing officers, and yes, for formally nominating the president
and vice president. This way the television networks could stop complaining, and
cover just the acceptance speeches, as long as they gave the rest of the time
they would have spent on the conventions to the candidates of both parties later
in the fall. After all, the last time I checked, the airwaves belong to the
people of the United States. Its time we got a real return on what we own.
Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for
America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and
fiscally responsible political candidates.