Reforming the Primary Process: Vote Early and Count Often
The system we use to select the major-party presidential nominees in this country is badly broken. That New Hampshire may move its primary into 2007 should be evidence enough. But focusing on the absurdity of the primary calendar obscures a problem of greater significance: not all voters are equal. To correct that sad truth we must change the way we select candidates.
The only solution that treats every voter equally would be to establish a true national primary, with every state voting on the same day. Unfortunately, this format would eliminate the essential "retail" politics of small-state primaries and turn the contest into a nasty televised slugfest among the candidates with the most money.
There is, however, a simple way to establish a national primary and yet still allow retail politicking to meaningfully affect the course of the campaign over several months: allow early voting, with regular reporting of the tally.
Here's one way it could work. Set a national primary date of June 30 and create a window for early voting that opens on Jan. 1. The early votes would be counted and reported at the end of each month from January through May.
More than 30 states already allow early voting, and every state allows absentee voting. But under the current system, those votes sit around until Election Day and often don't get counted at all if the race isn't close.
If we began counting and reporting the interim results in advance of a national primary, the voters who cast early ballots would play the same role as voters in Iowa and New Hampshire do now: they could signal viability or create momentum for their favored candidates. These early voters would be self-selecting, trading the opportunity to watch the campaign unfold for the ability to demonstrate early conviction.
Most important, every voter, no matter where he or she lived, would have the freedom to make this choice. Right now, when one votes is determined by where one lives.
In 2008, more than 20 states will hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, the most crowded primary day in history. The candidates who emerge from that so-called Super-Duper Tuesday will likely gain an unstoppable momentum. Votes cast in later primaries will probably be irrelevant.
The rush to the front of the calendar has further increased the value of voting early. Several states have moved their primaries and caucuses into January in order to share in the spotlight typically reserved for Iowa and New Hampshire. Even so, candidates this year have held more public events in those two states than in all other states combined.
Congress has held hearings on the problem with the primary calendar, and several creative ideas have surfaced. Most call for dividing the country into regions and then allowing small states to vote first or rotating which region votes first from election to election. Some have even proposed assigning the order in which states vote by lottery.
Each of these solutions would be better than the current mess, but they also share an important flaw: they all mistake randomness for fairness. Only a national primary would make every vote -- at least those cast on the official primary date -- equally meaningful regardless of where it was cast.
Early voting would allow positive campaigning and direct contact with voters, often cited as justifications for the special role of Iowa and New Hampshire in the process, to retain their importance during the six months before the national primary (at least until the very end). The choice to vote early would more likely be driven by strong positive attitudes toward a candidate than negative feelings toward the competition.
Voters would have to be highly motivated to cast their votes early. Candidates would have to prove their vote-getting ability in all regions to establish viability for the general election, but a lesser-known candidate with strong regional support or dynamic appeal would have time and opportunity to build momentum.
Sadly, campaigns would still pay attention to campaign contributions. Only a robust public financing system can change that. But the horse-race significance of donations would diminish. Actual votes, rather than money-raising totals, pundits or polls, would identify the front-runners.
Best of all, a national primary preceded by a window of regularly reported early voting would likely enhance voter participation from the paltry 20 percent typically seen in presidential primaries. Call it the "American Idol" effect. When everyone gets to participate equally in the voting, millions of people tune in.