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Primary Power to the People

Released July 17, 2009

A FairVote Innovative Analysis by Rob Richie and Paul Fidalgo

Facts in Focus:

  • Americans favoring a single national primary election for presidential nominations: 72% (July, 2007 NYT/CBS)

  • Average turnout for 2008 Republican presidential primaries through February 5: 12.6%. After February 5, when John McCain effectively secured nomination: 8.4%.  Average turnout for 2008 Democratic presidential primaries through February 5: 17.7%. After February 5: 23.6%.*

In a Nutshell

The entire political universe, from the heights of the Washington establishment to the depths of the grassroots, agrees that our presidential nominating process needs to be reformed. But while there is broad consensus that a problem exists, there are myriad diagnoses as to what actually needs fixing. As the parties begin internal and interparty discussions about what elements need tweaking, it's time to take a serious look at more extensive and comprehensive reforms that will truly fix the process. The parties should begin to debate a plan that includes traditional state-based nomination contests culminating in a final, decisive national primary.

Our Analysis

Stop the presses! The Republican and Democratic Parties have come to a major point of agreement that has sweeping, national implications. Both of these normally-opposing factions have recognized that it�s time to address the fundamental flaws in a broken, outdated institution. Change may truly be coming to America.

That�s right. The parties have begun to take action to fix the presidential nomination process. It�s early, but reformers have reason to hope. 

It�s no secret that both parties have a confusing, hodgepodge mix of caucuses and primaries, divided into closed, open, and even �semi-open� contests, with delegates available in both regular and �super� varieties, and a slew of debates, straw polls, fish fries, and lots and lots of consternation over corn. It�s unlikely that much or any of this will disappear in future nomination cycles, but commissions within both parties are now trying to get some sort of handle over this seemingly untamable political beast.

Mainly at issue is the nomination calendar. While oddly continuing the practice of having a handful of states like Iowa and New Hampshire always go first, the parties allowed a free-for-all among states that overwhelmingly chose to vote on the first Tuesday in February. Wearied by the grueling contest between then-senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and hoping to avoid having states frontload their contests almost to the middle of Christmas shopping season, the Democrats are now looking to narrow the window of time in which contests can be held, withholding them until March.  

Meanwhile, as The Hill reported in June, Republicans are of a similar mind, but with a different emphasis. The party is actively trying to avoid a de facto �national primary,� and is taking steps to spread its contests further apart in an effort to give more voters a substantive say. FairVote research shows that primary turnout for the Republican contest in 2008 dropped precipitously after the nomination was effectively wrapped up on Super Tuesday, going from 12.6% for the primaries on and before February 5th, to a mere 8.4% after. In comparison, the average turnout for the Democrats� months-long battle actually went up after February 5th, from 17.7% to 23.6%.*

Though these reform strategies are a bit scattershot and their ambitions still modest, the intentions are good: starting later to shorten the process (and lessen the chances of, for example, a winter storm changing political history) and even more importantly, allowing time and space for presidential hopefuls�at all levels of notoriety and funding�to make their case to their parties� voters.  The New Jersey GOP�s David Norcross has hope for progress, telling The Hill, �Now, for the first time ever, we both have the authority to make changes and can actually talk to each other and maybe hope to work things out.� Democratic National Committee chair and Virginia governor Tim Kaine has said he would like his party�s commission to �focus on reform that improves the presidential nominating process to put voters first and ensure that as many people as possible can participate.� We couldn�t agree more.

But well-meaning reform can be a double-edged sword. If the window of time gets too narrow, we approach the oft-dreaded, one-shot �national primary� scenario that favors well-known, well-moneyed candidates. But with contests spread apart, we always run the risk of nominations being wrapped up well before the majority of Americans have even tuned in, essentially disenfranchising them. Meanwhile, polls show that American voters themselves overwhelmingly prefer the idea of a single national primary day (72% in a 2007 New York Times/CBS News poll). What to do?

Why not consider an approach that takes the best ideas from various schools of thought in order to reap their benefits? We think it�s time to take a fresh look at a concept proposed decades ago by Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska, originator of his state�s unicameral legislature, and discuss having both a well-organized state-by-state nomination process that then culminates in a National Primary Day.

Under this scenario, the parties would agree upon a set calendar that satisfies the criteria that most agree are necessary for real reform: a schedule that allows states to take turns in being among the earliest contests, gives less well-funded candidates a fighting chance to make their case, and gives all voters a meaningful opportunity to weigh in no matter where they live. As the candidates compete they would accrue delegates as usual, winnowing the field as those who fail to garner enough support gradually drop out. As the cycle reaches the end, the remaining candidates would go head-to-head in one nationwide election in which party voters across the entire country get to choose between the finalists.

More specifically, we like the idea of making that primary a set day in early June � perhaps the first Tuesday, or, more daringly, the first Saturday. States would be encouraged to hold their congressional primaries that day too in order to encourage higher turnout. Parties could, by party rule, limit the number of candidates in the final primary to the top two, but could also allow more candidates to participate if they adopted instant runoff voting, the ranked choice method that preserves majority rule in multi-candidate fields.

For organization of the state-by-state contests, FairVote is particularly supportive of the American Plan, which begins with a group of states with a population no bigger than that of Maryland, and after a set of fixed two-week intervals widens the breadth of the playing field with rotating groups of increasingly larger states. States and parties would need to decide whether these contests should be primaries or party-financed caucuses � given that all party voters would have a chance to vote in the decisive final national primary, the more grassroots-oriented, less costly caucuses might be sufficient for the individual contests � and save tax dollars. 

Recent nominations also point to changes in state contest rules we would urge states to make � proportional allocation of delegates, as already required by Democrats, and instant runoff voting to determine the real winner of states. John McCain wrapped up his party�s nomination so early largely because many state Republican contests allocate delegates by winner-take-all. McCain won only 39.3% of the popular vote in primaries through February 5th, well short of a majority, but that translated into 75% of the available delegates in those primaries�prematurely ending the race, and leaving no incentive for Republican voters to take part in the later contests. Contrast that with Barack Obama, who had won 45.7% of the popular vote in primaries through February 5th, and 50.5% of the available delegates due to his success in caucuses and the Democratic Party's proportional representation rule. Both parties should be using a proportional method so supporters of all candidates in all states have a reason to show up. In order to retain the notion that winning a state still means something special�a notion already played up by the media�a �bonus� percentage of delegates, 5% for example, could be awarded to the first place finisher, but only if instant runoff voting were used to keep �split votes� from rewarding  weak winners.

This idea would theoretically allow for the best of all possible worlds, as all voters across the country would have a chance to play a decisive role in the parties� nominations, and the progressing calendar of state contests would allow sufficient time for a meaningful examination of the candidates. The state-by-state contests would permit considered deliberation and test the candidates� character, skill, and wits under fire. While some states still wind up with more influence than others in the initial filtering out of candidates, under the American Plan (and plans like it), influential positions would rotate from cycle to cycle. Once the competitors have survived their political trials, the National Primary Day would give everyone an equal voice in definitively deciding who will be their standard bearer in November. No one is left out of the process.

This debate is an old one, and it�s hard to say with any assurance that any one approach is the perfect solution. Every reform has its benefits and drawbacks. But a comprehensive attempt at reform should actively entertain ideas more significant and far-reaching than slight calendar restrictions or the odd adjustment in the power of superdelegates. What is really at stake is the voice of the American voter in their presidential elections, and with that in mind, it becomes clear that bolder, more innovative approaches will need to be on the table. Significant overhaul of the system is not just about abstract electoral mechanics. Elections, as well as nominations, have consequences.

* These numbers do not take into account caucuses, due to their stricter standards of voter eligibility and other nuances in rules.
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FairVote is a leading advocate for reforming the presidential nomination process�see FixThePrimaries.com for more.
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In other news:

On June 30th, over 100 people attended "The Future of the Voting Rights Act," a morning conference cosponsored by the New America Foundation and FairVote. It featured some of the nation's top voting rights experts, coming together to review the recent Supreme Court decision known as NAMUDNO and its impacts, and to think more expansively about voting rights and representation in the United States. You can see video of the entire conference here.

Rob Richie takes to the letters page of the New York Times to call for substantive reform of the New York State Legislature by using proportional voting, and in the San Diego Union-Tribune, National Popular Vote�s John R. Koza tackles the shortcomings of the Electoral College and how the National Popular Vote plan is the right solution.

FairVote�s Adam Fogel gave testimony last week to the DC City Council in support of sweeping election reform measures (read his testimony here[PDF]), and this week gives a presentation on youth voting initiatives at the National Civic Summit in Minneapolis.
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Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, communications director: paul(at)fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616
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FairVote's staff and interns have been busy blogging, with several new, informative posts every week. See www.fairvote.org/blog.