27 December 2007

On Presidential Primaries

One of the crimes of our current electoral system — the United States picks its President in about as undemocratic a method imaginable — is that the same four million people pick the candidates for both major parties every year.

Wikipedia lists the fifty states' and six non-state U.S. territories' populations, based on official estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. In light of next month's high-profile primary elections, the numbers are remarkable.

Elections are very expensive: candidates for primaries must go door-to-door, and raise money for media buys. It would be highly undemocratic for California to be the first primary. Eventually, the nominee must win California, but s/he should not have to compete there until most of the candidates have been culled from the game, and fundraising is funneled to only a few folks who've had lots of free media. Indeed, if California was the first primary, you can be sure that only the candidates who come into the game with big names and lots of personal money would be competitive. (Perhaps, of course, this is better? I wouldn't mind a system that rewarded career politicians who worked their way to the top after long terms in the Senate, Cabinet, and state Governor mansions.) So we must, if we are to have some semblance of a meritocratic democracy, begin the nominating contest in small states.

With that said, the current choices of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina cannot be justified.

Iowa, with just shy of three million people, is not large. It has five members of the House of Representatives, and its population is largely white, pro-farm, and anti-immigrant. New Hampshire is legitimately small: it has only 1.3 million people and two representative in Congress. South Carolina, on the other hand, houses more than four million people, and is the only early primary with a sizable non-white population.

But Iowa is larger than twenty other states (and the District of Columbia), any of whom would make a reasonable first-in-the-nation primary. From smallest to largest, they are:

Wyoming, DC, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

These twenty one voting districts represent the full range of American demographics. DC is urban, Black, and overwhelmingly Democratic. Hawaii is majority Asian; New Mexico has a large Mexican immigrant population. Many of the small states are rural and conservative, while others, like Rhode Island and Delaware, easily represent the metropolitan North East. Vermont has a bizarre politics all to its own.

The 2008 election cycle will begin with the same four million people that have started the game for the last twenty years. Four million people whom the candidates, when they are in their most pandering mode, call "uniquely qualified" to pick a candidate. Are the rest of us stupid and uneducated? Are North Dakotans or Hawaiians somehow less able to consider the candidates' experiences and abilities? A democratic system should not enfranchise only those who are educated, or moneyed, or otherwise "qualified" to vote.

In a better system, a bipartisan, independent commission, taking input from major party leaders, would select the Primary order each cycle. Their selections should, by law or policy, begin always with a couple small states — say, two states from the twenty smallest. Criteria should include some complementarity: one liberal, urban population, with one rural conservative one, say. And, most importantly, their selections should be different from year to year. In one cycle, Vermont and Idaho start off; in another, Utah and Delaware.

There have been many complaints this year about the election starting too early. It has been an expensive year (see, for instance, the listings at opensecrets.org): Clinton and Obama have each raised close to one hundred million dollars and spend forty million of it; Romney has raised and spent around sixty million. The general election will probably cost each party around a billion. And it's exhausting, and a distraction from the important work of running the country. Oregon's Governor, for instance, is out in Iowa stumping for Clinton, rather than doing his gubernatorial work. Will the 2012 election begin similarly early? It wouldn't if the Primary committee waited to announce the order, and perhaps was empowered also to announce the dates.

A system like this — or, indeed, any proposal to reform the primaries — would most likely require, in order to go into effect, the commitment of both parties as well as Congressional involvement. That's a tough order, but a necessary one if we are going to have a truly democratic democracy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your post seems to contradict itself and I do not understand your point.