Pete Winn | Senior Staff Writer | Thursday, February 07, 2008
The nation's secretaries of state want Congress to turn its attention to a bill that would replace the current primary system with one centered on four revolving regional primaries.
According to the people who oversee most elections at the state level, the system is broken and needs repair.
"There is something wrong with the primary system," Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson told Cybercast News Service.
"The states are fighting to move to the front of the line. The parties are trying to instill order. The candidates are trying to deal with rules changing in the middle of a campaign and having to decide whether to campaign in states that may have violated rules of order on hosting primaries," Grayson said.
Michigan and Florida Democrats were stripped of all their delegates to the national convention this summer for moving their primaries up to an earlier date. Republicans in those states were penalized half their delegate count.
"Meanwhile, a lot of voters are left watching on the sidelines because their states choose not to move up, for whatever reason, and the nominations are sewn up before they get to vote," Grayson added.
Kentucky's primary, set for May 20, serves as a symbol for what's wrong.
"It's possible that we might matter, but the odds are we won't," Grayson said. "That would continue a pattern of the last few years where, by the time May rolls around, it's all done. We get to go in and vote, but it's like a pretend vote. You see names on the ballot but it doesn't matter."
A revolving regional Super Tuesday
To remedy the problems, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) proposes a revolving regional primary system.
"We start with Iowa and New Hampshire, leave them in their traditional front status, because we think it's valuable for a couple of small states to start off, so that under-funded and lesser-known candidates have a shot to compete and we can have some true, retail politicking," Grayson said.
But once voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have their say, the plan divides the country into four geographic regions, with primaries to start in March.
"Each of those regions has a primary - a Super Tuesday, if you will - but it will be a regional Super Tuesday, and we stretch it out over the next four months," he said.
Lots will be drawn, and whatever region goes first - East, West, North or South - would go last the next presidential year and work its way up towards the top, so that over a 16-year cycle, each region will get a chance to go first, last, and be in the middle, Grayson said.
"Our belief is that by setting up this regional system and rotating that you will enfranchise more voters in a given year - and that you will deemphasize the inordinate impact that Iowa and New Hampshire have on the process," he added.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) are sponsoring the NASS bill (S. 1905) in Congress.
"Primaries were not intended to be an arms race," Klobuchar said. "We seek to give order to this chaotic, messy, and unrepresentative process. This schedule gives power and influence back to the voters in every state."
Why has this not been tried before? Because the people who set the rules for primaries are oftentimes representatives of the campaigns, and they naturally want to do what's best for their campaigns, Grayson answered.
"If you just look at Super Tuesday, a lot of the states in the Northeast moved up on the Republican side to try to benefit Mayor Giuliani," he said. "For Democrats, Illinois moved up to try to benefit their favorite son, Barack Obama. So you have forces that are trying to nominate 'their guy' or 'their gal.'"
Moreover, the political parties have a big say in the primary calendar, and they are not yet backing the proposal.
Neither the Republican National Committee nor the Democratic National Committee has taken a position on S. 1905, which is currently parked at the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
But in testimony before the committee last September, the DNC told senators:
"We strongly believe ... that the responsibility for establishment of rules for selection of delegates to each national party's nominating convention should remain with each national party and that, indeed, Congress lacks the authority to impose a particular system of delegate selection on the political parties."
However, Timothy Conlan, a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and an expert on federalism issues, questions the idea that Congress lacks the necessary authority.
"I think it is entirely likely that one could make a clear and persuasive argument that Congress has the authority to affect federal elections and the timing of those," Conlan told Cybercast News Service.
Certainly, some kind of reform is needed, he added.
"I think you can make a very good argument that some kind of reform is going to be needed before the next round of primaries," Conlan said.
"It makes sense for any one state to move up their primary, but the overall process really doesn't contribute to the collective good. After all, we came very close to having Iowa and New Hampshire come even before the Christmas holidays last year - if they were going to retain their advantage."
One of the problems with rotating regional primaries, however, is the fact that whichever region went first would affect the candidates.
"Because it would be a rotating regional primary, the particular beneficiaries from different wings of political parties would vary from one election to the next - and it would probably give rise to more gamesmanship in terms of particular candidates timing their attempts to seek the presidential nomination," Conlan concluded.
Conservative candidates, for instance, would likely have to wait until it was the South's or West's turn before launching their candidacies.
The GOP is scheduled to meet in early April to assess how this year's primaries went and to recommend solutions to this summer's convention. Democrats are slated to look at the delegate issue in the summer - and may consider the primary problem next year.
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