The Mad-Money Primary Race | The Nation


The Mad-Money Primary Race

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A number of savvy reformers, such as California's Tom Gangale, have come around to supporting a scheme, referred to as the American Plan, that in several senses builds on the strengths of the Delaware Plan. The American Plan is designed to begin with contests in states with small populations and then build over an extended period to primaries in bigger states. The schedule would give candidates with low name recognition and small bank accounts time to score breakthrough wins early and then attract the attention, contributions and support needed to compete with better-known and better-funded contenders in bigger states.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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Running from March to June of election years, the American Plan would play out over ten two-week intervals, during which states selected by lot choose delegates. In the first interval, combinations of very small states with a total of eight or fewer Congressional districts--such as New Mexico with five, Maine with two and the District of Columbia with one--would hold primaries or caucuses. The point is to encourage door-to-door "retail politicking" at the opening of the process.

The random selection, via a lottery held a year or more before states choose delegates, would break the Iowa/New Hampshire stranglehold and allow states that are more diverse--such as New Mexico, with its large Hispanic population, and Mississippi, with its large African-American population--to be in the running for first-primary status. It would also stagger the schedule that follows the early contests, avoiding front-loading and creating a situation that would allow grassroots campaigns to build over time, as Jimmy Carter's did in 1976.

Whether the American Plan is the exact fix is not the point. FairVote's Richie and the group of reformers associated with the Fix the Primaries project--which includes Republicans like former Senator Brock and Sansonetti, who have worked hard to advance reforms within their party, along with California Democrats like Damian Carroll and David Phelps--go out of their way to highlight all the serious proposals. These include the American Plan, the Delaware Plan, various regional plans and even the national primary scheme. What they really want is for Congress and the parties to create a bipartisan commission to examine the options.

Party officials don't like the idea of Congressional involvement, as was clear last year when Senators Amy Klobuchar and Lamar Alexander proposed a regional primary system. The parties balked, claiming Congress has no authority to tell them how to nominate candidates. That's not necessarily true. With voting rights laws, federal grants to the states for the purchase of election machinery and federal funding of campaigns, Congress is already involved in the nominating process. This year the Federal Election Commission will give the Republican and Democratic national committees $4 million apiece to run their conventions. As Tova Wang explains, "The balance of opinion seems to be that the federal government can play some role." But what role? Rather than proposing a sweeping fix of its own, Congress might do best by prodding the parties with the universal lubricant of American politics: money. Of course, establishing full public financing remains the most appealing reform. But short of that, Congress could promise federal grants to cover all expenses incurred by states that run primaries on a schedule proposed by the commission and accepted by the national parties. That incentive might also encourage states to do away with antidemocratic caucuses, which in 2004 attracted less than 6 percent of eligible voters in Iowa and less than 3 percent in the ten other caucus states.

Even with prodding from Congress, the challenge of getting parties to embrace workable reforms is daunting. Yet it must become a piece of the broader electoral puzzle. Instead of merely complaining about a process that is not putting all its flaws on display, those committed to democratizing it must challenge the likely nominees to support the Fix the Primaries proposal for a bipartisan commission. And activists should work to assure that this summer's party conventions find room for what Rove shut out in 2000: a serious discussion of how to avoid the chaos of a front-loaded, frequently shifting yet always money- and media-defined nominating process.

Wang points out that the current problems cannot be ignored by those who would repair our political system. "Like other issues that the voting and civil rights communities devote attention to, the flaws in the primary process present a serious challenge to fair and equitable representation," she says. "Now that the primaries are an expected and important part of the presidential election system, reform groups [need to start addressing] them in accordance with the same democratic principles as they do for general elections."

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