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The Baltimore Sun

Fixing the Presidential Primaries

Steven Hill

According to a survey conducted for the Associated Press and Yahoo News, fewer than one in five voters approves of Iowa and New Hampshire's "favored state" status in the presidential primaries, and nearly 80 percent would rather see other states get their chance at the front of the line.

The sense of unease is not just that many Americans question whether a handful of voters from two low-population, not-very-diverse states should have so much more influence than other Americans in narrowing the field of presidential aspirants. It's also that the lack of a sensible primary schedule has led to anarchy.

On Feb. 5, nearly two dozen states with almost enough delegates to decide the nomination by themselves are scheduled to hold their primaries or caucuses. Having a single primary day with so many states should be called Super Stupid Tuesday, because it gives great advantage to those candidates with the most campaign cash and name recognition to compete in so many states simultaneously.

In addition, states with primaries after Feb. 5 - including Maryland - may find that the nomination is already over. Even if it isn't, that uncertainty will lead more states to leapfrog in the 2012 presidential election, continuing the anarchy.

Fortunately, there is a better way that would allow the maximum number of states to be relevant to the presidential nomination process.

A national plan would establish a total of four primary days, each held a month apart. The states would be grouped into four clusters, by population. The smallest 12 states, plus federal territories and the District of Columbia, would vote first, followed by the next smallest 13 states, then the 13 medium-size states, and finally the 12 largest states. These primaries would begin in March and end in June.

By starting with small states and moving on to ever-larger ones, this plan would give all states an influential role and allow more voters an effective voice. Because the big states vote last, the nominations probably wouldn't be decided until the final day, creating a nominating process that lasts longer, allowing the public to become better informed about its choices. It also would create a shorter interval between the primary season and the nominating conventions in the summer, helping to sustain the public's level of engagement.

Finally, a national plan would preserve door-to-door "retail politicking" in small states early in the season, and give lesser-known or underfunded candidates a chance to catch fire. Party members would have more time to consider whether early front-runners best represent their party's chances of winning, and late-blooming candidates would have a chance to bounce back from early defeats.

Both major parties are planning to review their nomination procedures, and they should put in place a national presidential primary plan by 2012. The nomination of our nation's chief executive is too important to leave to such a chaotic process.

Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy."

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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