COMMENTARY | It's long past time for a national presidential primary.
The latest controversy involves Florida (what is it with Florida and election problems, anyway?), and their plan to move the date of their primary contest to Jan. 31, 2012. The problem? The Republican Party does not allow just any state to hold a caucus or primary before March 6. Any state that does so without permission faces losing delegates to the nominating convention. And they'll do it, too. In 2008, five states lost half of their delegates because they held their primaries too early. Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Wyoming were docked for violating party rules. This time around, four states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, are the only four allowed to hold their elections prior to March 6.
Keep in mind, this is only the Republican primaries. The Democrats have their own rules. Some states hold their Republican and Democratic contests on different days, just to further complicate matters. Which is why we desperately need to reform the system, and make everyone go on the same day.
Before anyone thinks it, this is not my idea. A national primary day is an idea that's been kicked around for a long time. A national primary was first proposed in 1911, and it's come up over 100 times since then. There are multiple groups today, like FairVote and National Presidential Caucus, promoting the idea. Folks on both sides of the political spectrum think it's a good idea. Implementing a national primary day might be something easily arranged by the political parties themselves, or might have to come from Congress, in the form of a law or even a constitutional amendment. But it needs to happen.
The graduated system we have now is theoretically designed to give a voice to minor candidates, allowing them a chance to be heard, even if they are struggling for funds. By putting all of the elections on the same day, every candidate that wanted a viable chance to compete would need to raise huge sums of money to wage a national campaign. But truly viable candidates need to do that already. Michele Bachmann's campaign is having fundraising woes, and Tim Pawlenty's fundraising problems helped sink his candidacy as well, months before any actual ballots will be cast.
There are a lot of different ways to do it. Everyone can go to the polls on the same day, just like we do on Election Day in November. We can protect the special status of Iowa and New Hampshire, and let them go first as a polite nod to history and to head off some criticism about minor candidates and fundraising. We could have a lottery every year that randomly picks two additional states to join the Anointed Two, and rig it so those two cannot be selected again in back-to-back election cycles.
Whatever we come up with, it cannot be worse than what we have now; a free-for-all where individual states try to one-up each other for real or imagined influence, sacrificing their voice at the conventions for a larger say in shaping the results. A system where significant portions of the electorate vote in primaries and caucuses that don't matter, because one candidate has already amassed enough delegates beforehand. Where political parties are forced to treat their state organizations like naughty schoolchildren, who are growing bolder with their defiance with each passing cycle.
A national primary. Simple, clean and easy. It's too late for 2012. But let's make it happen in four years.