A better plan needed for primaries

By Ryan O'Donnell
Published December 5th 2005 in Rocky Mountain News
The Democrats' new strategy must be: anger the small swing state, flatter two bigger ones. A Democratic National Committee commission recently voted to add two states to the early January window of presidential primaries, and is considering tapping Colorado or Nevada to become the "New Hampshire of the West."

As evidenced by efforts by Bill Richardson and others to set up a Western regional primary, there's clearly a strong feeling that more states should have a say in this important process. But the Dems won't get this fairness by brushing off New Hampshire. Predictably, they will get ire.

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 also 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 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.

Reforms of the 1970s went a long way toward smashing the influence of the political machines, and, unlike the turn of the 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.

So while watering down the first- in-the-nation status of New Hampshire is absolutely unfair to New Hampshire voters, shutting out most other states is equally unjust to the rest of us. Colorado and Nevada certainly do not deserve to be taken for granted. The solution just isn't to add more states to the early primary season, but create a system that gives everyone a fair shot.

A fair primary schedule would preserve the door-to-door retail politicking we see in small states like 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 too.

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 National 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. If we make the right changes, both Colorado and 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, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election reform group in Washington, D.C. More about the American Plan at www.fairvote.org/ americanplan.

Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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