A Better Way

Posted May 6, 2008 at 6:03pm

When this presidential election is over, both of the national parties, state parties, governors and state legislatures — and Congress — need to seriously reflect on the process and reform it to make it more efficient, more democratic and less exhausting.

It’s hard to know exactly what forms these reviews will take or what all the results should be, but some things are clear. One is that Congress needs to revise the presidential campaign financing system, which all major candidates now routinely ignore for the primaries, and one or both may yet do so for the general election. If the system is to survive, it needs more funds and more generous spending limits.

Democrats may want to revisit their system of allocating nominating convention delegates by proportional representation in Congressional districts rather than by the state winner-take-all system employed by Republicans. The Democrats’ system is arguably more democratic than the Republican, yet even it gives extra weight to voters in districts that vote heavily Democratic.

An even more democratic system would be to award delegates proportionally on the basis of statewide popular vote, although Democrats may feel this would present problems in open primary states that allow non-Democrats to take part. Independents and crossover Republicans would have equal say with lifelong Democrats in such situations.

Then, the parties and the states surely will revisit the primary schedule. States that rushed to the front of the calendar this cycle, believing that the Democratic race would be over at the beginning of February, clearly did so in error. Those at the end of the line are having much more decisive influence than the early states, and Michigan and Florida Democrats look to be having none at all.

On many of these issues, it’s not blindingly clear what the solution ought to be. But one strikes us as a no-brainer. Caucuses clearly are far less democratic than primaries, and state governments and the parties should move from one to the other.

Iowa undoubtedly would find this idea nearly sacrilegious, but the fact is that even in this high-interest year, only 16.3 percent of eligible voters turned out for that state’s caucuses, compared with 52.5 percent in New Hampshire’s primary five days later. In Nevada, caucus-goers amounted to 9.5 percent of eligible voters on Jan. 19, whereas the South Carolina primary drew 30 percent the same day. On Feb. 5, the combined turnout for primary states was 31 percent; for caucus states, 6.3 percent.

Caucuses discriminate against the elderly, who find it difficult to go out at night and spend several hours in a crowded location. Others who find it difficult to attend are night-shift workers and parents with children at home who can’t afford child care. Caucuses where voters must line up in groups based on their preferred candidate also violate the principle of the secret ballot.

Of course, it’s been fascinating for political junkies to watch a two-year, high-intensity battle for the presidency. But the winner may well be mentally and physically exhausted by the time he or she takes office — just when gigantic issues have to be faced with a clear mind. There has to be a better way, both to vet our presidential candidates and to ensure the greatest participation in the process.