Thursday, June 30, 2011

A National Primary: The Cure to Iowa and New Hampshire

I don’t like to argue politics, but this is an issue that’s been bugging me, and it’s really not a Democrat vs. Republican argument.

It’s time for a national primary to select our candidates for President of the United States. Think about the current system: a bunch of idiots in Iowa and New Hampshire basically control who we will be able to vote for in November. Is it fair to rest the nation’s future on how a candidate shakes someone’s hand in a cornfield, or how well they tip a coffee shop waitress? Are the people of Iowa and New Hampshire especially wise? Do their needs jibe with ours? I say no.

Presidential preference primaries were a 20th-century creation, an effort to give more of a voice to the common voter and stem the influence of party bosses. Methods might differ from state to state, but the end result was a slate of delegates to the national party conventions - where the party bosses could still make deals in smoke-filled rooms and nominate someone else.

Conventional wisdom in today’s presidential politics says that a candidate must do well in Iowa - or New Hampshire - to have a chance at that party’s nomination. Just think about that for a minute. How stupid! Why Iowa and New Hampshire? Why not South Dakota and Delaware? It makes no sense when you begin to question the current set-up.

None of this, mind you, is spelled out in the Constitution. The parties have been making and changing the process since the 1820s. Nothing about primaries, or conventions for that matter, is sacred. So let’s change it!

As with most things in modern society, the undue influence of money and media has warped the political process. Many would argue that without the primary system, the less-well-funded candidate doesn’t stand a chance to get his or her message to the voters. But does a candidate without a big war-chest stand a chance in the current system? Let’s not kid ourselves.

Here’s what we should do:

1. Let’s take the television money out of the equation. Paid political ads will only be allowed during a two-week period leading up to the national primary (and, later, the general election). Every qualifying candidate gets the same amount of commercial time. I think France does this. Direct mail, telephone banks and personal appearances are permissible before, during, and after that two-week period.

2. We need a qualifying standard for candidates to participate in the national primary. Do they need to qualify in all 50 states? I say no, because that would eliminate the less-well-funded candidate. What should that qualifying standard be? Maybe they should be required to take a test and undergo a background check, like many people do when they apply for real jobs.

3. Let’s set the voting date for the national primary some time in May; a different date for each party. You can only vote in the primary if you’re registered in that party. We’ll have nationally-televised “debates” with each of the qualifying candidates invited to participate. And if there are, say, 15 qualifying candidates? Fine. Pop an extra bag of popcorn and settle in.

4. Let’s hold a runoff for each party, if necessary, in August. If one candidate doesn’t get 50 percent of the primary vote, then we take the top 3 or 4 to a runoff. Many states do that now with local elections. We won’t need party conventions, because they have turned into bloated television commercials that no one watches anyway. A party nominee could run on his own platform, his own ideas and convictions, without being hamstrung by a party platform plank insisted on by a vocal minority.

5. Here’s the best part. Let’s say the Republicans don’t have a candidate who can get 50 percent of the primary or runoff vote; then the top 2 Republicans both wind up on the November election ballot. Same with the Democrats. We might have a November presidential election with four candidates from the two parties. Now you have crossover voting - Ds can vote for Rs, and vice versa. Alternatively, maybe those candidates team up as candidate-running mate. Maybe they each choose a running mate.

6. What about Independents? We would need a qualifying standard for them as well. Maybe we lump them, along with the odd qualifying third-party candidate, into a catch-all primary. Or maybe they have a different qualifying standard to participate in the general election.

The bottom line is that voters would have more choices than they do in the current system. Over time, this might even lead to the creation of a legitimate third or fourth party - or, best of all, maybe the current political parties would fade away.

We shouldn’t be afraid to change the current system. Who knows? Something good might happen.

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