Wrong answer to presidential-primary problem

By Ryan O'Donnell Special to the Sentinel
Published October 11th 2005 in The Orlando Sentinel
The day was when presidential contests were decided not by the caucus, but by the cigar. The "smoky backroom deal" was the preferred method long before primaries became the dominant force in picking a party's nominee. Fortunately, political machines and party bosses no longer control who enters the general election. Reforms of the 1970s brought about the demise of this undemocratic end-run around voters, and led to today's system of primaries.

But we still have a scheduling conflict in America. The electoral reform commission headed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker recognized this when its final report called for reform of the primary schedule. Currently, Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy special first-in-the-nation status, and wield enormous power to influence the outcome. We saw this in 2004, when a nearly defeated Kerry campaign suddenly surged in Iowa, creating unstoppable momentum for the rush of contests to follow.

The Carter-Baker commission proposes "rotating regional primaries." Under their plan, Iowa and New Hampshire still go first. Afterward, four regions of the country hold primaries at one-month intervals from March to June, and take turns being the first region every election.

This would be a positive step. Unfortunately, the plan fails the tests of what a good primary schedule should be.

A good primary schedule does not give a monopoly to a few select states. Carter-Baker gets an F here. The commission wants the regional primaries to begin after Iowa and New Hampshire go first. Because of that politically motivated detail, the plan changes very little. Involving all 50 states is important because America should be fully represented in the decision. As it stands, two small and overwhelmingly white states dominate the process.

A good primary schedule preserves the advantages of starting with small states. Candidates deserve the opportunity for door-to-door politicking, and getting out their message without a king's ransom in campaign funds.

Voters deserve more choices than the megafundraisers who can afford to lavish money early on in big-state primaries. But under Carter-Baker, the most populous states would take turns deciding the nominee. States like New York, California and Texas would squash smaller states in their regions.

A good primary schedule has an extended and set duration. Because two states force the decision so early, the primaries conclude all too often before March. The first "regional primary" would have the same effect. Candidates should get ample public exposure everywhere in the country, and not replace debate with dead air until the general election heats up. Also, with only two months to campaign, it's no wonder many candidates opt out of public financing, putting more influence in the hands of big money.

Without a national plan, states scramble to compete with Iowa. In fact, over the last year, many sought to push their primary dates earlier, in a counterproductive rush to the front. Even so, a recent Democratic commission all but endorsed the strategy of front-loading when it recommended adding more states to the early weeks of the primaries, essentially spawning more Iowas.

What's the solution?

FairVote supports the "American Plan," a variation on the "Delaware Plan" nearly adopted by the Republican convention in 2000, and endorsed by the Young Democrats of America. Like the Carter-Baker regional system, the American Plan creates gaps between clusters of primaries and moves from small to large states. However, it also integrates random order, creating chances for all states to be part of earlier primaries.

Americans know we have an ailing system. What the Carter-Baker Commission, the Democrats and reformers like FairVote disagree on is the prescription. Yet, as we examine what best serves voter choice in this country, let's not go halfway on primaries reform. Let's serve all Americans' interests with the American Plan.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization advocating free and fair elections. For more information on the American Plan, visit www.fairvote.org/americanplan or contact [email protected] (301) 270-4616.

Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote

Sierra Club National Popular Vote Resolution
WHEREAS, the mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet through grassroots participation in politics and government; and

WHEREAS,  presidential candidates focus their efforts and resources only in battleground states.

WHEREAS, two-thirds of the states receive little to no attention in a competitive presidential election.

THERFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports National Popular Vote state legislation that will elect the President of the United States by popular vote.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Sierra Club supports election of the President of the United States by direct popular vote.