Opinion

Presidential primary reform

Starting in snowy villages of Iowa and New Hampshire last January, American voters have spent the past five long months picking our presidential contenders. The primary-caucus calendar is almost complete, capped by voting in Montana and the final states on June 3. But before the memories of this marathon endurance contest fades, let's re-commit to working for reform of the out-of-control presidential primary and find a system that is fairer, shorter and less brutal to the candidates.

There are hopeful signs that the Republican National Convention will take up a rotating regional primary proposal this September that would be in place in time for the 2012 elections. The Democratic National Committee could then adopt the plan.

As a member of the National Association of Secretaries of State's (NASS) committee on presidential primary, I recently attended a symposium on this timely issue sponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Panelists from the political parties, academia, prominent media figures and election experts generally agreed that "frontloading" the primaries and caucuses ever earlier on the election calendar has gotten out of hand. The first election, the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, forced candidates to campaign right through the holiday season. Remember all the speculation about pre-Christmas primaries? Absurd. Many of the panelists also commented on the inordinate power of small states like New Hampshire and Iowa in winnowing the field and noted the rancor that followed decisions of Michigan and Florida to leapfrog ahead of the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday that the political parties had designated as the earliest opening date for most states. Questions about proportional allotment of delegates and the whole "superdelegate" role for the Democrats also swirled.

What's better? NASS has long advocated a more sensible system: a later start say, beginning the first week in March, grouping states by regions for voting during March through June. Washington would be in a group of 14 western states. It would be more humane for the candidates and would halt the inexorable lengthening of the campaign cycle.

Several other serious plans are circulating and I have a degree of optimism that significant reform could happen this year. The Republican National Committee's rules committee has taken the first step by voting to have the so-called Ohio Plan go before their national convention in September. The presumptive nominee, John McCain, has given his blessings. Large states may try to amend the plan to move themselves earlier in the process, so the outcome of this reform plan isn't certain. But it is encouraging, nonetheless, and it's also a good sign that the rules panels of the two major parties are in direct communication on a weekly basis on this vital reform. If the GOP convention indeed passes it, I believe Democrats would approve it later. Some advocates believe Congress might want to give the system the force of law and others would leave the schedule and the system up to the parties themselves.

The Ohio Plan would allow Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to retain their traditional early bird roles, with no voting until Feb. 1. Four "flights" or groupings of states would follow. The first cluster would always include a set of smaller states. The remaining three groupings each would include one or two large states with more than 25 electoral votes and smaller states. These three clusters would vote in March, April and May, with the order decided by a drawing. The plan would place Washington in a group of 16 states, including Texas and Oregon. Washington would be the second largest state in the group.

Although memories may fade as the nomination battles end, let's use this as a "teachable moment" and move forward with fixing this once and for all.

Sam Reed is Washington's 14th Secretary of State. He is former president of NASS and currently sits on the panel dealing with presidential primary reform.

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