Primary Process Yields Talk of Needed Reform

Posted June 4, 2008 at 6:43pm

Just days after Democrats settled a protracted presidential primary fight with a raucous weekend showdown over arcane rules, Senators are trying to make sure such a complicated situation doesn’t happen again.

“The Florida and Michigan disputes really highlighted for many people the flaws in the primary nominating system,” said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “A lot of people … are going to see it as a higher priority issue in the wake of Florida and Michigan.”

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee has confirmed that on July 9 it will take up legislation drafted by Nelson and other lawmakers exploring “regional rotating primaries, eliminating caucuses that don’t provide an opportunity for all registered voters to have their votes counted and reforming the delegate selection process,” Rules spokesman Howard Gantman said.

Nelson’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), would create a six-region presidential primary system. According to the plan, voting would begin on the second Tuesday in March and wrap up the second Tuesday in June. The Election Assistance Commission would assign the regional primary dates at random.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) are proposing a similar regional primary system in which the primary dates would be selected by an EAC-sanctioned lottery. According to Klobuchar’s plan, the first primaries would be held on the first Tuesday in March and end before the second Tuesday in June.

“The current schedule undermines the spirit of the primary process,” Klobuchar said after introducing her bill last year, well before the primary madness began. “It risks turning our primaries and caucuses into a tarmac campaign, with candidates forced to partake in a blitzkrieg campaign strategy across the entire country. It is time to de-escalate the primary arms race and restore the spirit of the primary process that allows for meaningful discussion with voters across the country.”

But Colorado-based Democratic political consultant Mike Stratton suggested legislators should begin digging in for a protracted fight if they think state party committees will roll over easily, arguing that “the delegate system had worked generally well for many, many years.”

Stratton sat on the Democratic National Committee panel tasked with setting this cycle’s primary calendar.

“The devil is in the details,” Stratton said. “The concept of having greater representation is good. But the reality is that Iowa and New Hampshire are ensconced in the political fabric … Iowa and New Hampshire do not go away easily.”

Stratton said this year’s contentious presidential primary schedule, which came to a close Tuesday, was not designed haphazardly; rather, he said the committee worked hard to temper the two traditionally early — and largely homogenous — states’ disproportionate sway by moving up the Nevada and South Carolina contests.

Stratton said the blame for the prolonged Democratic primary meltdown rested solely with Democrats in Michigan and Florida.

“This calendar would been fine had Michigan and Florida abided by with what the DNC had designed,” Stratton said. “Had their state parties complied with the schedule that had been approved by the DNC, then all of this chaos and consternation would not have occurred.”

“Forty-eight other states played by the rules,” he added.

After months of fierce debate on how to divvy up the disqualified delegations from Michigan and Florida, Nelson, Levin and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) fought for the rights of the two state’s convention delegations Saturday at the DNC’s marathon Rules and Bylaws Committee session at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

The DNC ultimately voted to penalize the two states for voting out of turn, a deal that allows the states’ delegates to vote at the party conventions this summer — but only with half-votes.

Under Nelson’s six-region plan:

• Region No. 1 would include Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

• Region No. 2 would include Washington, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

• Region No. 3 would include Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

• Region No. 4 would include Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico.

• Region No. 5 would include Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.

• Region No. 6 would include California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Hawaii, Alaska and primaries or caucuses in other territories.

Under Klobuchar’s four-region plan:

• Region No. 1 would feature Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.

• Region No. 2 would have Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

• Region No. 3 would take in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

• Region No. 4 would have Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.