America needs a fair Presidential primary schedule for all states

By Ryan O'Donnell. Guest Commentary
Published November 28th 2005 in Manchester Union Leader
DEMOCRATS SHOULDN'T be surprised at a rebuff from New Hampshire as they roll out their plan for an upgraded Presidential primary schedule. The Democratic National Committee Commission on Timing and Scheduling should indeed expect anger to follow such a bold brush off of the state's status.

After all, in Presidential elections, it's every state for itself. We see it during the nomination process, as Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy the power to make or break the contenders, while most other states can do nothing but ratify their decision. We see that dynamic in the fall campaign, as candidates court an ever-smaller club of swing states, leaving the rest in the dust.

Who wants to lose that power?

In the days when political bossism presided over political conventions, there was contempt for listening to the voices of the people in primaries. As Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg famously said while campaigning for the Republican nomination to challenge FDR, "Why should I kill myself to carry Vermont?"

For the Democrats to crowd the early primaries with new states would demote New Hampshire in 2008 to the status Vandenberg disdainfully gave its neighbor Vermont in 1940. All the money, the publicity, the influx of campaign workers, the winter economic boost, and the attention to the issues New Hampshire voters care about would be diminished.

Of course, as a swing state in the general election, New Hampshire would still get some attention. Still, this is the wrong way to reshuffle.

The fact is, Vandenberg had reason to be so disdainful of primaries in his time. Back then, the people were seldom heard when voting for President at the polls.

But the reforms of the 1970s went a long way to smashing the influence of the political machines, and unlike the turn of the previous century, primaries count. Bosses can't go around voters by appointing their own delegates or relying on patronage to line up the votes they need. But even with these changes, the question is, how many primaries count? Unfortunately, not many.

As such, watering down the first-in-the-nation status of New Hampshire is absolutely unfair to New Hampshire voters. Equally, shutting out other states from this immensely important decision is also unfair to voters in the rest of the country. The solution isn't to add more states to the early primary season, but to create a system that gives everyone a fair shot.

A fair primary schedule would preserve the door-to-door retail politicking we see in New Hampshire. This gives voters the chance to get to know the candidates. Doing so also allows candidates to compete without Titanic-sized bank accounts. That means starting out with smaller states and working your way up to more populous ones.

A fair schedule would also incorporate random order, so the same few states don't go first time after time. Larger states should have the chance to go a little earlier as well.

Finally, a fair schedule would have a reasonable and set duration. By setting up clusters of primaries spaced at two-week intervals, we can prevent the process from being over after the first couple of contests. A longer schedule is also an incentive for candidates to take public financing, which is paid out on a monthly basis.

The system just described is the "American Plan," a variation on the "Delaware Plan" nearly adopted by the Republican convention in 2000. The plan was endorsed by the Young Democrats of America as well as FairVote, and is the change that both parties should really be considering.

Everyone should have an equal say in choosing their party's candidate, regardless of where they live. This is an ambitious principle, but also an attainable goal. If we make the right changes, New Hampshire will get a fair say, and so will America.

Ryan O'Donnell is communications director for FairVote � The Center for Voting and Democracy, online at

Get Ryan O'Donnell Articles

Sign up to get new commentaries in your mailbox.