Primary Solutions

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Published March 2nd 2004 in Baltimore Sun
Maryland Democrats heading to the polls today can take some satisfaction that they still have a choice among candidates in the race for the presidential nomination.

But backers of candidates who have dropped out will have to settle for a smaller, less diverse field because of choices made in earlier primaries and caucuses.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has a clear edge, having so far won 18 of the 20 contests electing delegates. But Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is pushing him hard. Dennis Kucinich and The Rev. Al Sharpton are still pursuing their long-shot candidacies.

The Iowa caucuses and the primaries that followed knocked out the five other major contenders. The candidate most focused on Maryland last year, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has stopped campaigning, as have retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

The rushed primary schedule has cost Marylanders their power of a full choice, as it did for everyone in the 32 states voting after Mr. Kerry's critical win in Wisconsin Feb. 17. Front-loading the primaries effectively has disenfranchised most Democrats and allowed front-runners to avoid the intense scrutiny they would have faced in a more competitive race -- and that the Democratic nominee certainly will get from President George W. Bush's re-election campaign.

Perhaps most importantly for both the November election and beyond, if today's 10 primaries virtually lock up the nomination, Democrats won't have any incentive in the remaining primaries to mobilize new voters and encourage more attention to their case for the White House.

In retrospect, Mr. Kerry apparently gained a huge advantage by his surprise win in Iowa, which led to his convincing follow-up victory in his home territory of New Hampshire. The rushed primary schedule gave him nearly unstoppable momentum.

Some Democratic Party leaders would be pleased with a quick win that allows them to focus on fund raising for November, but they are making a serious mistake -- both for winning in November and building their party and a strong democracy over time.

The nominating process should be fairer and more inclusive and effective. Reform is hardly far-fetched: Republicans nearly overhauled their primary schedule in 2000 and Democrats plan a major review by 2006.

Reform should enhance what already works. In contrast to most general elections, contested presidential primaries offer a meaningful range of views with real diversity of opinion. The intense focus on Iowa and New Hampshire encourages candidates to have sustained contact with ordinary voters rather than wage campaigns solely from TV studios. Potential nominees must withstand challenges that test their mettle.

But parties could strengthen themselves -- and democracy -- with new approaches:
  • Rotate opening states. A lottery among small and mid-size states should determine the first to hold primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire should not be the sole focus of candidates' grass-roots campaigning. Different states have different concerns, particularly those with bigger cities and more racial diversity.
  • Create an inclusive, sensible schedule. To avoid a nine-month general election campaign of sniping and personal attacks -- and yes, it's already started -- primaries should return to running from March to June. After the opening primaries, small states would vote in a "mini-Super Tuesday," followed by a break that would allow voters to give front-runners a second look. Bigger states would then vote, followed by more breaks, until 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, in which 25 percent of the vote earns a proportional 25 percent of delegates.
Republicans, however, mostly use a winner-take-all system in which the first-place finisher receives all delegates. This distorts results and can allow an unrepresentative candidate to win big when the opposition vote is split among several candidates. Both parties should consider lowering the 15 percent threshold required by Democrats to win delegates.
  • Adopt Iowa's "second choice" system. Voting in a public meeting, Iowa's caucus participants can vote for stronger candidates if it's clear that their first choice can't win delegates. Primary voters would gain this enhanced power if they could indicate their second and third choice candidates rather than just vote for one. More voters would help elect delegates (in this year's early primaries, more than a quarter of voters supported candidates who didn't win delegates), and candidates would be more likely to reach out to supporters of other candidates and run positive campaigns.
  • Remember young voters. They are most likely to be unregistered and are disproportionately registered as independents and would benefit from being able to register on the day of the primary and vote even if registered as an independent. New Hampshire's primary rules allow these provisions, but Maryland's do not. And, while youth turnout remained low this year, young voters participated in bigger numbers than in 2000 -- 400 percent more in Iowa and 50 percent more in New Hampshire.
  • Fix the financing. When leading candidates like Mr. Kerry, Dr. Dean and Mr. Bush opt out of public financing, the system is broken. A 4-to-1 public match for small donations should be provided and participating candidates given additional funds when opponents opt out.
We deserve elections in which more of us make a difference, choices are meaningful and our votes count. Parties can adopt most of these changes without congressional legislation. Let's reform so that in 2008, Marylanders -- and the rest of the nation -- have a better choice.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting & Democracy in Takoma Park. Steven Hill is the center's senior analyst, based in San Francisco.