Presidential primaries: some modest proposals

Back in December of last year, I wrote a little about the spectacle of spending by Presidential hopefuls and the media that cover these folks obsessively, and I promised I would come back to the topic to suggest a better process, hopefully with a better outcome than we typically see these days.

In more idealistic times, about 40-50 years ago, the two major parties moved to devolve more “power to the people” through a system of Presidential primaries and caucuses–each state was free to choose its favored option–to give voice to that state’s electorate as to its preference for a nominee.  That hodgepodge of state contests. lasting from January (Iowa) to June (California) has been the usual model since the 70’s.

There are several problems with this process, from each state making its primary or caucus into a hitching post for a tourism campaign (If you are skeptical, use a website to compare hotel room rates in Des Moines in January of a Presidential campaign year with those same rates in February, after the traveling circus has moved on.), to the fact that someone who wins the tremendous prize of the Iowa caucus of either party may not survive as a viable candidate through March.  Those Iowans who were mad for Rick Santorum in January, 2012 were obliged, long before the Republican Convention of that year, to try to fall in love with another candidate in unseemly haste, since Santorum had dropped out of the race.

Now, primary elections are not really elections at all; the winner in each state gets only bragging rights, usually some proportionate share of the state’s delegates, and maybe a bump in fund raising.  Rules are set by the parties themselves and state law or some combination thereof.  Some states are “open” primary” states, i. e., they permit registered Independent voters to vote in either party’s primary, while some ar “closed,” meaning one must vote in the primary of one’s registrataion, while Independents sit it out.

Is it any wonder the results of this stew of mixed rules satisfies, in the end, just about nobody?  I’ll propose a few rules here, and justify them.  Disagree if you are so moved, since they’re all just suggestions.

First, there should be no primary voting before April or May.  What is sacred about January or February?  Let candidates make all the speeches they want, as early as they want, but no voting until the electorate has had a little time to get to know them.  And weather disproportionately impacts early events, too, as some are excluded from voting by weather.

Obviously, if the circus starts later, there can’t be only one or two primaries per week, and that’s for the better.  In fact, I wish we could see a system of regional primaries–say, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Mountain States, Southern Midwest, Northern Midwest, and Pacific.  Seven zones in seven weeks, starting in May, and it would still be all wrapped up by June, in time for the conventions and the general election campaign.

Independents are those who have declined to choose a party affiliation.  That’s fine, but what club offers you the option to decline membership and then says, “Oh, sure, here.  You can vote to choose our leader, too.”  Not only is that nonsensical on its face, but standardization of process should be the rule, and this is not the election, after all–only a preliminary to decide who will contest the election.  One last point: open primaries are ripe for skullduggery.  If I am an Independent, or just register as one to preserve the possibility to vote in either primary, I can, alone or in the company of many, vote for someone I believe will be a weak general election candidate.  Why?  Glad you asked.  If I am a Republican at heart, but maintain my Independent registration, I can slip into the Democratic primary to vote for the candidate I find WEAKEST, the better to increase my party’s chances in the fall.  All primaries should be closed.

In all primaries, offer voters a choice of “none of the above.”  If this option gets 20% or more (I know, arbitrary) then tat proportion of the state’s delegates should be persons who have not committed to any particular candidate, and can do so only at the convention.

Hold primaries in some way to encourage turnout!  Oregon does its Presidential primary by mail.  It could be on a Sunday or it could be a state holiday.  Surely there are ways to bring more people into the process, and, it follows, less chance for single-issue zealots to have outsize influence on the outcome.

Permit and encourage write-ins.  We’re only going to get a choice of two in November.  Why restrict choice early?

OK, That’s enough.  I encourage discussion of thee and other idea.