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Reforming Primary Politics

Michael J. Ring

Although several states have yet to hold their presidential contests, the 2000 primary season has been effectively over for nearly a month. And after some early excitement that Bill Bradley, and especially John McCain, would carry the campaign deep into the spring, both insurgents could not keep up with the slew of primaries crammed into a few weeks and bowed out only two days after Super Tuesday. The presumptive favorites, Al Gore and George W. Bush, easily prevailed in the end, vanquishing their opponents nearly three months before the official end of the primary season.

There’s got to be a better way to contest the presidential primary than this.

In the end, the gaggle of states that voted on the 7th of March was too insurmountable an obstacle for the underdogs. By the next week both winners had secured more than enough convention delegates to assure their respective nominations. And the reduction of primaries yet to come in over a dozen states like Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Jersey to meaningless contests robs those states of an opportunity to affect the presidential race -- an unhappy circumstance not only for the losers, but also for the winners, who lose the opportunity to learn about issues unique to these states as they have already clicked into general-election mode.

Several plans on reforming the presidential primary process are circulating among the Democratic and Republican National Committees. The two most notable plans are a system of rotating regional primaries, and the so-called “Delaware Plan” which allows small states to hold primaries first. Both plans have merit and both would be an improvement over the current system of frontloading primaries.

The regional plan, espoused by Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin, would keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the first contests but then split the country into four regions: Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Each region would vote first once every four elections, with the region voting first in the previous election moving to the end of the calendar in the next election.

The Delaware Plan, supported by former Republican Senator Bill Brock of Tennessee, allows states with the smallest populations to choose the earliest primary dates. Recognizing that states such as the plan’s namesake with few electoral votes garner little attention in November, the plan allows smaller states a larger role in the nominating process.

Most importantly, each plan allows primaries to be spread out over the course of months instead of squeezing most states’ primaries into a matter of weeks as is done now. Either plan would return to the more leisurely schedule of primary contests, giving all candidates ample time to visit all regions of the country.

Of course, neither plan is without its critics. The Delaware Plan angers officials in electorally-rich states such as California and Texas who are loathe to be sent to the rear of the primary calendar. But under such a system, these states’ contests would still wield tremendous influence as candidates could probably not amass enough delegates in the preceding small states to clinch the nomination. And it is undeniable that small states are swamped by these behemoths in November, so giving small states a voice in the primary season is only fair.

Some worry that the rotating regional primary system will encourage candidates of certain ideologies to run or to stay out depending on which region votes first. For example, these critics argue, conservatives would rush in and liberals would stay out if the South voted first; the opposite would happen if the Northeast voted first. But these concerns can be overcome -- by splitting the nations into eight smaller regions instead of four large regions, schedulers can ensure sufficiently small blocs of liberal and conservative states vote in succession, negating any ideological head-start.

Ultimately, almost any revision would be an improvement over the current system, where frenzied candidates shuttle between states and must rely on the media rather than retail politics to spread their platforms. Surely Democrats and Republicans alike would like to spend more than a month deciding who they wish to nominate for the most powerful leader of the world.