Redesigning the 2012 Primary System So Americans Give a Darn Again


As of April 24, GOP voters in some of the nation’s largest states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, and California, could still vote in their state primaries, but their votes are essentially meaningless. That’s because Mitt Romney’s opponents have suspended their campaigns, ending the 2012 nomination campaign for all practical purposes. In short, any GOP presidential primary voter whose state vote is April 24 or later has been effectively disenfranchised.

I had to face this fact when deciding if I should vote in the New York primary. The combination of inclement weather and the meaninglessness of my effort almost made me acquiesce to my disenfranchisement. I did not. I voted; the 12th in my district to do so in the primary's first eight hours. For whom I voted is not important, but the effort’s futility helped me understand why Michigan and Florida sacrificed delegates to move their primaries up in the schedule.

As I walked to and from the polls, I pondered the question of how to prevent primary disenfranchisement. The perfect solution from the voter’s perspective would be a single national primary. Popular vote would decide each party’s nominee; with a majority required to win. Should no candidate garner a majority, runoffs between the top contenders would continue until someone achieved a majority. Candidates could advance to the next round by either finishing in the top two or three in the previous round or by receiving a minimum percentage of votes. Alternatively, convention delegates could decide the nomination.

National primaries and runoffs are the only way to prevent primary disenfranchisement completely. But they play right into the hands of big-pocketed campaigns. Candidates like Mitt Romney could handle the financial demands of a national primary; Rick Santorum could not; he needed to gain exposure through small-market grass-roots efforts to reach national prominence. So while a national primary would technically end primary voter disenfranchisement, it would limit voter options in another way by raising candidates' financial barriers to entry into the presidential race.

A successful primary system would have to distribute the disenfranchisement burden without raising candidates' financial barriers entry into the presidential race beyond present levels. Distributing the disenfranchisement burden evenly requires a systematic routine for alternating the sequence in which states vote. Managing financial barriers to entry means having one contiguous section of the country vote at a time to control travel and organizational expenses.

To make a long story shorter, here’s the solution I devised. This proposal combines presidential primary tradition with a series of regional primaries whose sequence changes every four years. (I use “primary” to mean either “primary” or “caucus.”):

Iowa (6 electoral votes) and New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) retain their traditional places. This both honors tradition and gives low-budgeted candidates a chance to showcase themselves. Remember, Rick Santorum’s grassroots Iowa victory began his rise to prominence. The rest of the season consists of a series of regional races. They would take place between January and June, at a rate of one regional primary approximately every three weeks. Each region would, based on electoral votes, have an eligible electorate roughly the size of California’s. A proposed breakdown follows. Each state’s 2012 electoral votes appear in parentheses after the state’s name; each region’s total electoral votes appear in bold:

Red (see map): Connecticut (7), Maine (4), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3): (58) Yellow: Indiana (11), New Jersey (14), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20): (63) Cyan: Illinois (20), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Missouri (10), Wisconsin (10): (66) Blue: Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Kentucky (8), Maryland (10), North Carolina (15), Tennessee (11), Virginia (13), West Virginia(5): (68) Orange: Alabama (9), Arkansas (6), Florida (29), Georgia (16), Mississippi (6), Puerto Rico (N/A), South Carolina (9), U.S. Virgin Islands (N/A): (75) Purple: Kansas (6), Louisiana (8), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Dakota (3), Texas (38): (70) Green:, Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Idaho (4), Montana (3), New Mexico (5), Nevada (6), Oregon (7), Utah (6), Washington (12), Wyoming (3): (66) Gold: Alaska (3), American Samoa (N/A), California (55), Guam (N/A), Hawaii (4): (62)

States vote in a rotating sequence. The first season’s sequence would be determined by lot. After that, each region would move one place down each presidential primary season, except that the last-place region would move to first. Delegate count is OUT; “get out the vote” is IN. Nominations would be awarded based on cumulative popular vote. Convention delegates would only choose the nominee if no candidate achieved a majority. Primary voting would still determine a state’s delegate composition; all states would switch to a system of proportional representation based on total popular vote. “Winner-take-all” must go.

Using cumulative popular votes to decide nominations has the potential to extend races, making more primaries relevant to their outcome. According to George Mason University's United States Elections Project, the 2008 primary with the highest turnout was New Hampshire with 53.6% of eligible voters participating. Other turnout rates ranged from Wyoming’s 2.6% to Oregon’s 43.2%. You’d be right if you said that states’ participation rules vary, with some allowing voter crossover and some allowing independents to participate. However, these participation numbers indicate that there’s a huge untapped voter market out there even in the most politically active states. If a candidate could get that market to the polls on his or her behalf, he or she compensate for poor performances in some states with great performances in others. Margin of victory would become a statistic to watch.

This approach isn’t perfect, nor will it eliminate voter disenfranchisement completely. Here’s some things critics would say:

When a party doesn’t hold primaries, voters have no say. Take the 2012 Democratic campaign. Obama has no opponents; so the party’s rank and file has no input in either candidate nomination or delegate selection. Nominations must be contested for voters to play a role, regardless of the system in place. If candidates don’t remain in the race, no primary reform will prevent voter disenfranchisement. Also true. Hopefully cumulative popular voting would encourage candidates to hold on in hopes of making up ground through “get out the vote” efforts. Travel costs are high in the Western regions. Both the Purple and Gold regions have travel expenses that make focusing on the large states, California and Texas, a cost-effective strategy. The Green region is large as well, but does not have its population concentrated in a single state. Some travel issues, like reaching Hawaii and the Pacific territories, will persist in any system. It may be necessary to subdivide larger regions to defray travel costs, but that would make bypassing them more tempting because of reduced population. Super delegates have no place in a popularly determined nomination. They could have a role at the convention should a candidate fail to secure a popular majority. But they would have to be convinced to concede a consistent role in candidate selection. States must concede control over delegate allocation and scheduling. They could still choose between a primary and a caucus. But proportional representation would become mandatory and scheduling would depend on their region’s place in the rotation. Regions would have to be evaluated after every census. Population determines seats in both Congress and the Electoral College. Once new census numbers are in, primary regions might need redrawing just like congressional districts.

Injecting so much reality into the discussion doesn't mean that primary reform isn't necessary to give voters more of a voice in nominee selection. It does mean that there's a lot to work out and that I acknowledge creating a starting point for discussion, nothing more.

It turns out, of course that I’m no genius. Zachary Coyne-Rapin’s undergraduate honors thesis, Presidential Primary Reform in the United States, describes several primary reform plans cooked up over the last decade or so by minds far superior to mine. Coyne-Rapin discusses five plans, the American Plan, Delaware Plan, Rotating Regional Primary System, the Inter-regional Presidential Primary and Caucus Plan, and National Primary Day. 

National Primary Day is a single national primary; the others are various approaches to staggered regional voting, some organize regions based on population, others use geographic proximity. What they all try to do is find the approach to regional organization and primary sequencing  that keeps both voters and candidates involved for as long as possible. What they don’t consider are parameters normally left to states such as means of awarding delegates or adoption of a cumulative popular vote. But they’re worth a look.

But all of this for the moment is just an exercise. We’re still stuck in a system that disenfranchises primary voters once a nominee is decided. In the absence of primary reform, a voter who supports a candidate who suspended his or her campaign has the following options.

Not voting at all, thus acquiescing to disenfranchisement Voting for the presumptive nominee in the interest of party unity Voting for the suspended candidate. This isn’t as meaningless as it might seem. Suspended candidates are negotiating with the presumptive nominee for a say in the party platform, a slot in the speakers’ queue, perhaps a job in the incoming administration. Continuing voter support despite a suspended campaign can only strengthen the suspended candidate’s negotiating position.

So resist the temptation to acquiesce; go vote for whomever you support, even if their race is over. Stick up for the positions your candidate held; it will help him or her advocate for them within the party. It’s not a very good solution for primary voter disenfranchisement. But it’s the only one we’ve got right now.