31 December 2007

Reforming the Presidential Primary Process

The formal process of selecting the next President of the United States will begin in a few days. More than a hundred million people are constitutionally eligible to run for the office. There is a roughly 99% chance, however, that the winner will be one of a dozen people who have made a serious bid to receive a major party nomination and raised significant funds to do so. There are only three Democrats in serious contention for the Democratic nomination. The Republican field is wider and has shown far more movement over the past few months, but still small.

In a month and a half, a majority of the delegates to the respective national conventions of the Democratic and the Republican parties will have been committed and it is unlikely that there will be more than four candidates in contention, before unaffiliated voters have any say in the matter. Many of those delegates, if not most, will have been selected based upon party caucuses with far lower attendance from registered members of the respective parties than primary elections.

General election voters in November will have just two real choices in the Presidential race. This will give them a real impact on the future of this country, but, as always, it will be a choice of evils at that point, or indeed, even for the very first voters in the process, those who attend the Iowa caucuses this week.

The political party nomination system is broken. This year, Democrats will disenfranchise voters in Michigan and Florida because they bucked the rules privileging Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. A compressed primary system also makes it nearly impossible for a candidate to move to national prominence based upon "retail politics" in early primary states, because there is no time to fund raise based upon early victories. And, a compressed primary increases the likelihood of a brokered convention where smoke filled rooms in Denver or Minneapolis, rather than voter preferences decide the outcome. This is so because there is little time for early wins to generate momentum in later primaries.

The nation does benefit from a lengthy nomination process, because millions of politically aware people need time to get to know the candidates. But, we can do better, particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit reform and that federal law could secure standardization.

I would favor a process something like this:

In the first stage, in January, Presidential candidates would be required to formally declare their candidacy with the national committee of their political party and pay a significant candidacy declaration fee (perhaps $30,000) to help defray caucus publicity costs and to discourage non-viable candidates. Each party would devote its resources to sharing information about declared candidates with potential caucus goers, to caucus sites, and to the press, and would host Presidential debates. I suspect that no more than ten or twenty people in each party would run in most years.

In the second stage, there would be a single, national caucus for each party, in March, open to all registered voters affliated with that political party. Every caucus goer attending in person, after discussing candidates in their caucus, would vote a standardized pre-printed paper ballot listing all declared candidates for President in that party. Any candidate receiving at least 15% of the delegates available nationally in that round would make it into the second round, except that the top two candidates would make it to the next round if no one, or only one candidate, cleared the 15% threshold and the leading candidate did not receive majority support in the caucuses. A majority winner with no runner up receiving at least 15% of the caucus vote would simply become that party's nominee (something likely to happen routinely when there is an incumbent or other clear heir apparent). Each party would devote resources to sharing information about candidates who survived the caucuses with potential primary voters and the press and would host more Presidential debates inculding the remaining candidates in the party.

In the third stage, if necessary in a political party, in mid-May, there would be a national primary among the survivors of the first round (in theory, as many as six, but rarely that many in practice). If a candidate received a majority of the vote in the national primary, that candidate would become the party nominee. If not, all candidates receiving at least 15% support in the primary (or the top two, if only one candidate received 15% of the primary vote, and that person did not receive a majority) would advance to the national convention.

At the fourth stage, if necessary, in August, the national convention, including super-delegates as well as delegates selected in the May national primary election, would selecte a nominee for each political party. If a nominee was selected at an earlier state, this result would simply be ratified at the national convention without input from the superdelegates, and the national convention would focus instead on internal party business and preparing for the general election.

Every national political party nominee would appear on the ballot in every state automatically.

Candidates not affiliated with any party in the year prior to the election would appear on the ballot in every state if that candidate would submit a petition signed by 1% of eligible voters not affiliated with any political party to the Secretary of State in states with combined electoral votes sufficient to constitute a majority of the nation's electoral votes.

Candidates would have to be registered to vote and affiliated with a political party a year prior to election day to be considered in a party's nomination process, and no one affiliated with a political party in the year prior to election day would be permitted to run as an unaffiliated candidate (i.e. there would be a "sore loser" rule).

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