- Until 1968, presidential primaries in the United States were, for the most part, statewide opinion polls with no binding effect on the national nomination process. It was the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the malaise surrounding it that forced the Democratic Party to found the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which recommended new rules related to a system of binding primaries. George McGovern who co-headed that commission, knew the rules better than anyone, which enabled him to use the new system to his advantage to win the 1972 Democratic nomination. The Republicans soon adopted a similar system.
- At around the same time, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1972, requiring candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and expenditures. It was amended in 1974 to include limiting individual donations to $1,000 and donations by political action committees (PACs) to $5,000. The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 doubled the individual donation limit to $2,000. Two, recent, judicial decisions allowed for “independent-expenditure only committees,” otherwise known as “super PACs,” which can raise unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups. These funds are often used to fuel negative, single-issue media splurges.
Here is what is wrong with this system:
- Only about 15% of voters even bother to vote in primaries, and fewer than 10% in caucuses. Those who vote tend to be more zealous and further to the fringes than the average voter.
- Many states allow registered Independents to vote in either primary. Once again, those people tend to vote more on the basis of one or two issues than for the overall good of the parties whose ballots they select.
- The news media report the process like a football game, with clear-cut winners and losers. For example, in Iowa, it was first reported that Romney won the Republican Caucus, even though it was by a handful of votes, which statistically tied him with Santorum. Just before the South Carolina Primary, it was reported that a recount showed that Santorum won in Iowa, once again by a statistically insignificant number of votes. If we look at the first three contests in 2012, the news media now reports that they were won by Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich. However, if you look at overall votes (which is not as news-sexy), Romney is considerably ahead.
- The process is such that the first four nominating contests are in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, and the nominee is often designated by the end of the Florida primary. Taken together, these states are in no way representative of the country as a whole, in that they ignore the large Northeast and Midwestern cities as well as everything West of the Mississippi. They also tend to vote more conservatively than the general electorate.
The Republicans could very well end up with Newt Gingrich as their nominee because Evangelical Christians and Tea Party loyalists in these few states don’t like Romney. Do they really think Gingrich will get the necessary cross-over votes or the corporate votes to be elected president? I know plenty of Republican businessmen who would rather see Obama than Gingrich in that office. The truth is that the primary process, as it now stands, has polarized the electorate and produced a string of mediocre presidents who would probably not have been nominated without such a non-representative, poorly reported system.
So how do we fix it? The first step is to eliminate super PACs, which are responsible for most of the negative ads polluting our airways.
We can then focus on fixing the primary process, and there are many proposed systems including graduated, rotating regions, balanced primaries, and even a proposal for one, national primary. Each of these systems has its flaws, favoring one region or type of state ahead of others. So here is my proposal, which I call the Rotating Third System. Under this system:
- The country would be divided into three sets of states—17, 17, and 16 states in each set.
- Each third would be balanced by geography, population, and party registration, and it would be designated as A, B, or C.
- In the first election year using this system, states in Set A would vote on the same date in February, those in Set B would vote in April, and states in Set C would vote in June.
- Four years later, Set B would go first, voting in February, followed by Set C and Set A.
- Four years after that, Set C would go first, and this rotation would continue changing every four years.
Under the Rotating Third System, candidates could decide which states in each set deserve their greatest commitments of time and money. Even if a nominee emerges after the first set of primaries (which would be unlikely), that nominee would have been chosen by a representative sampling of America, rather than a random few states. And because the sets rotate every four years, no particular set of states has a continual, undue influence on the process.
Whatever system is adopted, it is clear that the election process is broken and needs to be fixed in a way that provides the country with nominees that are not the “lesser of two evils.” By doing so, we will go a long way toward solidifying our claim as the world’s greatest Democracy.