January 15, 2012

Let’s Not Give Up On Our Primary Election Process. It Can And Should Be Improved.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

   In last week’s essay, we quoted Winston Churchill’s memorable statement that “Democracy is the worst system there is except for all the others. We also restated Churchill’s observation by noting that we need to revise our delegate selection process and “the sooner the better.”

 This observation is most particularly true for the nominating process of either party seeking to replace an incumbent President or the party of an incumbent who is not running for re-election.

With Iowa’s caucus and the New Hampshire primary finished, we should pause and look at a little history to illustrate how our current process, in effect, disenfranchises a majority of voters.

In 1952, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (perhaps one of that state’s last governors who did not go on to a career of making license plates)  was selected as the nominee at the Democratic convention through a series of state primaries and won the 1952 nomination at the Democratic convention on the third ballot.  Today, nominating conventions have no real purpose to them except for the public learning the nominee’s vice-presidential choice.  Bringing party professionals into the mix might spare us another Sarah Palin debacle.  Perhaps there is a role for smoke filled rooms, even though smoking would be banned!

In 1952 the process produced Senator John Sparkman as the democratic Vice-Presidential choice, an obvious sop to party bosses who did not trust the candidate Estes Kefauver, who went into the convention with the most pledged delegates. After the first two ballots Kefauver led but was overtaken on the third ballot when Stevenson was nominated.  The 1952 presidential race had earlier been thrown into disarray when President Truman announced that he would not seek re-election.  As we all know, General Eisenhower was elected President in November 1952. In 1956 Kefauver ran again and won the New Hampshire and Minnesota primary over Stevenson.  Although Stevenson was again nominated, this time around the party chose Kefauver as his running mate.

Fast forward to 1968 when President Johnson made his surprise announcement to a nation bitterly divided by the Vietnam War that he would not seek another term.  Senator Robert Kennedy won the California primary in June, defeating anti-war Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota.  Kennedy in his final words said “on to Chicago” before being shot by a lunatic, Sirhan Sirhan.  In the end, Senator Hubert Humphrey received the nomination, but lost the general election to Richard Nixon, who had stated in 1962, after losing the California governorship, that we wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

But for the poorly-thought-out rule change the Republicans instituted for the 2012 primaries, it would have been possible, even likely, that the Republican nominee could have been decided within the next 30 days.  Thus, after the first three or four state primaries, less than three percent of registered voters could have decided the Republican nominee.  Talk about outsize influence.  States that have storied histories associated with their primaries (Wisconsin…always in April and California always in June) will have been effectively disenfranchised as will the remaining US voters in the United States which has an estimated 2011 population of 312 million people. We think the Republican rule change was rather harebrained anyway. If proportional allocation of delegates makes sense prior to April 1st, why doesn’t make sense thereafter?

What is the solution?  There are numerous ways vastly to improve the system all of which are better than what we now have.  Former President Carter and James Baker, in a report on US elections which contains a mish mash of proposals on voter registration, proposed several serious ideas, one of which recommends four regional primaries, held after the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary at one-month intervals from March to June.  The plan would substantially expand participation in the selection of presidential nominees and give voters the chance to evaluate presidential candidates over a period of three to four months.

The Carter Baker report states:

“Think of a major election in which less than 8 percent of voters cast a ballot, yet millions of other voters want to vote but never get the chance.  While such an election is hard to imagine in the United States, that is precisely how we select the candidates for the highest public office in the land.

In recent election cycles, the races for the presidential nomination of each of our major political parties have effectively ended by March, before people in most states have the opportunity to vote.  As a result, most Americans have no real say in the selection of the nominee. Intense candidate scrutiny by the media and the public is limited to about 10 weeks.  Candidates must launch their presidential bids a year or more before the official campaign begins, so that they can raise the $25 million to 50 million needed to compete.

The Presidential primary schedule has become increasingly front-loaded.  While eight states held presidential primaries by the end of March in 1984, more than three times that – 28 states – held their primaries by March in 2004.

[We have] recommended a comprehensive overhaul of the presidential primary system.  This recommendation was received enthusiastically in numerous editorials, which expressed the view of a great many voters across the country who want a say in choosing their presidential candidates.

We believe that it is important for the parties to maintain control of their own primaries.  Therefore, we would encourage the two parties to make the needed changes in their primary schedule.  If the parties don’t take action, they risk losing that power to Congress, which should make the desired change through federal legislation if the parties remain unwilling to do so.

In the end, voters throughout America deserve a say in the selection of candidates for the most powerful job in the country.”

We would add a provision that over four election cycles, the regions would rotate so each region would have the opportunity to go first. The current system of selecting candidates is not a credit to either American Democracy or our long tradition of American Exceptionalism.  We can do better in selecting candidates for the presidency of a great and exceptional nation.

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2 responses to “Let’s Not Give Up On Our Primary Election Process. It Can And Should Be Improved.”

  1. Mark J Levick says:

    Your proposal is a step in the right direction but the electorate will still be confronted with an array of candidates who either have no resume of qualifying accomplishments as was the case with Obama or are members of the professional politician corps that have placed party above principles to the point that we are broke with little to show for it. Since both political parties have failed us perhaps the time is ripe for parties of people who are unaffiliated with special interest groups to participate in the process. Facilitating write in voting or providing a “None of the Above” box will send a message to the party pros.

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