Editorial | Move the Vote Forward
Of primary concern in Pa.

By Editors
Published March 18th 2007 in Philadelphia Inquirer

Pennsylvania officials should follow New Jersey's example and move the state's presidential primary to an earlier date, Feb. 5, 2008.

The mad scramble of states to hold their presidential primaries earlier is not a healthy development. It urgently needs to be reformed by the political parties.

But it's too late to restore sanity to the process for 2008. If Pennsylvania doesn't move up its election date next year, its voters will again be irrelevant in choosing the nominees.

As it stands now, Pennsylvania's presidential primary is to be held on April 22, 2008. By that date, the nominees would probably be clear. The nation's sixth-most-populous state, and one of the few "swing" states, would be an afterthought.

At least 23 states, including California, have moved or are considering moving their primaries ahead to Feb. 5. The first Tuesday in February is shaping up as the new "Super Tuesday." With other delegate-rich states such as Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois contemplating the same move, Feb. 5 could become a decisive day.

New Jersey, which held the nation's second-to-last primary in June 2004, wisely decided to get back in the game in 2008, with legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts (D., Camden) putting the Garden State in the Feb. 5 cluster. New Hampshire is still the nation's earliest primary, on Jan. 22. Iowa and Nevada will hold caucuses earlier.

If Pennsylvania holds its primary 11 weeks after "Super Tuesday," turnout would be low and apathy high. That result would be especially disappointing, given that the 2008 contest will be the most wide-open race in a half-century and is already generating enthusiasm nationwide.

Gov. Rendell last week urged state legislators to move the primary to Feb. 5, despite some obvious drawbacks. A serious one is that it might force school boards to present their preliminary budgets to the public this November, nine months before the start of the fiscal year, when it's impossible to project enrollment and staffing levels. Under the state law that created slots gaming, school districts need voter approval for tax increases.

The solution would be to hold the presidential primary on Feb. 5, but keep the local primaries on the fourth Tuesday in April. That's much better public policy, but it would cost the state an estimated $18 million. Probably money worth spending.

Beyond 2008, the national political parties need to collaborate on a more sensible primary system. The trend toward "front-loaded" primaries places more emphasis on the people who write checks for candidates than on the people who cast ballots. It also creates a too-short testing process for possible nominees, as Democrats who flocked to John Kerry early in 2004 out of pragmatism discovered in the fall, when his failings as a campaigner became vivid.

If the nominating contests are essentially finished by Feb. 5, it will create a gap of nearly seven months until the party conventions, during which time mud-slinging "Swift Boat" groups will run rampant. Yecch.

One reform proposal gaining favor is the "America Plan," which has the goal of creating a nominating process that is more competitive over a longer period of time. The America Plan would schedule 10 rounds of primaries, starting with diverse small and mid-sized states in mid-February. Each round of primaries would be held at two-week intervals; the first large grouping of state primaries would take place in early May. States whose primaries are held near the end of the 2012 campaign would automatically move to an earlier date in 2016.

This system is a modification of the "Delaware Plan" that the GOP nearly approved at its convention in 2000. By focusing at the start on states with smaller populations and smaller media markets, candidates with less money might not be forced out of the race early. A shorter interval between the last primary and the party conventions would help to maintain voter interest in the campaign.

For a rational system such as the American Plan to be in place for 2012, the national parties should approve it at their 2008 conventions. Congress would then need to approve legislation formalizing the new system. A rare moment such as now, with no incumbent president or vice president running for office, is the best possible time for reform of a dumb system.