One Person, One Vote Should Come First
State contests should winnow the field before we give everyone an equal vote in a national primary
March 9, 2012
Every four years, voters in a handful of states effectively pick the president. Current Electoral College rules force candidates in November to focus their resources on a dozen swing states. In nomination contests, it's often even worse.
Barely 1 in 300 Americans lives in New Hampshire, but since 1952, only Hubert Humphrey in 1968 earned a major-party nomination without finishing in the top two in its primary. This year the nomination dreams of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were effectively ended by 121,501 Iowa Republicans, less than the population of Miramar, Fla., and 206 other cities.
Iowa and New Hampshire guard their first-in-the-nation status as zealously as grade schoolers hoarding crayons, but it's time for them to share. We should combine the best of what the current rules promote with what large majorities of Americans support: a national primary where everyone votes on an equal basis.
Starting small and having a series of contests over time, as we do now, gives less well-financed candidates a better chance and provides opportunities for debates in a range of states. Those values would only be enhanced by rotating which states vote early, as proposed by most reformers. Yet a fairer schedule isn't enough. Contest order inevitably has an unfair impact on who wins and which issues garner candidate attention. The momentum earned from early state wins can lead to media attention and campaign donations that make a nomination inevitable, as with John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008.
That's why state contests should only winnow the field before we give everyone an equal vote in a national primary. States with a total of eight congressional districts would vote first. That might be a single state or a few small states. Every two weeks for four months, more states would hold contests, representing a gradually increasing total population and changing in order every four years. Convention delegates would be allocated proportionally to better reflect different opinions within the state. States might pay for primaries or let parties come up with their own rules.
No voter would be left behind, however. In June, soon after the last state contests, there would be a national primary—ideally twinned with congressional primaries to further boost turnout. In a competitive year, parties should advance three candidates, giving more credible candidates a chance to make their case and allowing strong candidates to win even if entering the contest late.
In both the national primary and state contests, parties should try the Australian system of instant runoff voting. It avoids "vote splitting"—a candidate winning with 40 percent even though 60 percent strongly prefer another—by allowing voters to indicate a first, second, and third choice and simulating a runoff. Not only would it uphold majority rule, but it would discourage excessive negative attacks because candidates would need to earn second choices from backers of losing candidates.
This combination plan addresses concerns that a national primary would limit deliberation and make money too important. In a national contest unfolding over time, candidates would be smart to campaign in every state, organizing grass-roots operations and learning about the diverse interests of our nation. Then, at the end, all Americans could come together within their party of choice to participate in an election grounded in that fundamental value of representative democracy: one person, one vote. Let's be bold and make every vote count in 2016.