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Syndicated Column

Are Political Conventions Necessary?

By Gov. Howard Dean M.D.

July 26, 2004

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 primary.

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. 


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