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Commentary: A cure for the political nomination process

By Rob Richie and Paul Fidalgo
Published August 10th 2009 in Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Republican and Democratic Parties have come to a major point of agreement that has national implications. No, it's not health care. Rather, these warring factions have recognized that it's time to address the fundamental flaws in our presidential nomination process.

Indeed, the entire political universe, from the heights of the Washington establishment to the depths of the grass roots, agrees that our nominating systems need to be reformed, although there are myriad diagnoses as to what actually needs fixing. As the parties begin internal and interparty discussions about which elements need tweaking, it's time to take a serious look at more extensive and comprehensive reforms that will truly fix the process.

Both parties have a confusing, hodgepodge mix of caucuses and primaries, divided into closed, open and even "semi-open" contests, with delegates available in both regular and "super" varieties, and a slew of debates, straw polls, fish fries and lots and lots of consternation over corn. It's unlikely that much or any of this will disappear in future nomination cycles, but commissions within both national committees are now trying to get some sort of handle over this seemingly untamable political beast.

Mainly at issue is the calendar. While continuing the favoritism shown to states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the parties allowed a free-for-all among states that overwhelmingly chose to vote on the first Tuesday in February. Wearied by the grueling contest between then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and hoping to avoid having states frontload their contests almost to the middle of Christmas shopping season, Democrats are looking to narrow the window of time in which contests can be held, withholding them until March.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are trying to avoid a de facto "national primary," and are considering spreading their contests further apart in an effort to give more voters a substantive say. FairVote research shows that primary turnout for the Republican contest in 2008 dropped precipitously after the nomination was effectively wrapped up on Super Tuesday, going from 12.6 percent for primaries held through Feb. 5, to a mere 8.4 percent after. In comparison, the average turnout for primaries in the Democrats' months-long battle actually went up after Feb. 5, from 17.7 percent to 23.6 percent.

Though some proffered reforms are a bit scattershot and their ambitions somewhat modest, the intentions are good: starting later to shorten the process and, more important, allowing time and space for presidential hopefuls at all levels of notoriety and funding to make their case to their parties' voters.

But well-meaning reform can be a double-edged sword. If the window of time gets too narrow, we approach the oft-dreaded, one-shot "National Primary Day" scenario that favors well-known, well-moneyed candidates. But with contests spread apart, we always run the risk of nominations wrapping up well before most Americans have tuned in, essentially disenfranchising them. Meanwhile, polls show that voters themselves overwhelmingly prefer the idea of a single national primary day (72 percent in a 2007 New York Times/CBS News poll). What to do?

Why not consider an approach that takes the best of the various schools of thought in order to reap their benefits? It's time to take a fresh look at a concept proposed decades ago by noted reformer George Norris and discuss having a sensibly organized state-by-state nomination process that culminates in a final national primary.

Under this scenario, the parties would agree upon a calendar that allows states to take turns being among the earliest contests, gives less well-funded candidates a fighting chance to make their case, and gives all voters a meaningful opportunity to weigh in no matter where they live. As the candidates compete they would accrue delegates as usual, winnowing the field as those who fail to garner enough support gradually drop out. At the end of the cycle, the remaining candidates would go head-to-head in one nationwide election in which party voters across the entire country get to choose among the finalists.

The national primary could be held in early June, perhaps over a weekend to encourage higher turnout and ideally when most states nominated members of Congress. Parties could decide to limit the number of candidates in the final primary to the top two, but could also allow more candidates to participate if they adopted instant runoff voting, the ranked choice method that preserves majority rule in multi-candidate fields.

One smart way to organize the state-by-state contests would be to use an idea known as the American Plan, which begins with a group of states with smaller populations, and after a set of fixed two-week intervals steadily widens the playing field with rotating groups of states. States and parties would decide whether these contests should be primaries or party-financed caucuses - since all party voters would have a chance to vote in the decisive national primary, the more grassroots-oriented, less costly caucuses might be sufficient for the individual state contests.

This could allow for the best of all possible worlds. The state contests would permit considered deliberation and test the candidates' character, skill, and wits under fire. While some states would still wind up with more sway than others in the initial filtering-out of candidates, under systems like the American Plan influential positions would rotate from cycle to cycle. Once the competitors have survived their political trials, the national primary would give every party voter an equal voice in definitively deciding who will be their standard bearer in November. No one is left out of the process.

This debate is an old one, and there is no perfect solution. But a comprehensive attempt at reform should actively entertain ideas more far-reaching than slight calendar restrictions or the odd adjustment in the power of superdelegates. More innovative approaches will need to be on the table because the voice of the American voter in their presidential elections is at stake. Significant overhaul of the system is not just about abstract electoral mechanics. Nominations, as well as elections, have consequences.


Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan non-profit that seeks universal access to political participation, and Paul Fidalgo, its communications director. Readers may write to the authors at FairVote, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912; Web site: