Political Parties Wisely Consider Overhauling Primary System

By Daily Editorials

May 31, 2016 4 min read

As if the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer didn't promise to be contentious enough, party leaders may use them to make changes to the delegate selection process that created all the discontent.

Done correctly and fairly, this would be an excellent idea. The current system grants outsized influence to voters in small, largely homogeneous states like Iowa and New Hampshire. By the time larger and more diverse states get around to choosing delegates, the field of candidates has been winnowed. In February, we modestly suggested that if one state had to be first, it should be one in which the demographics closely mirror the nation as a whole: Missouri.

This editorial page has supported a system of regional primaries, held in a compressed time span, with the various regions taking turns every four years being first. But any such change would run afoul of lawmakers in Iowa and New Hampshire, who have enshrined their early voting status into state law. They like the attention and the huge sums of money spent on the process. The downside is a relentless barrage of campaign advertising to win miniscule numbers of delegates.

The New York Times reports that GOP officials are deliberating ways to dilute the influence held by Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as South Carolina and Nevada, which follow close on those states' heels. Regional primaries are under consideration, as is pairing early voting states with neighboring states that would vote the same day.

Party rules, which normally are of interest only to policy wonks, took on outsized influence this year. Republican Donald Trump, who had little interest in the fine points of the delegate selection process, complained that the rules were stacked against him.

In fact, Trump benefited from the rules in the 23 open primary states, like Missouri, that allow people who aren't declared Republicans to vote in the GOP primary. Party leaders reportedly are considering mandating closed primaries. This would benefit mainstream candidates at the risk of alienating backers of outsiders like Trump. Party leaders liked voters' enthusiasm, but not their candidate.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders has complained about party rules that allow elected officials and other party big shots to become "superdelegates," who are free to vote for whomever they choose. Nearly all of them back Hillary Clinton.

In this extraordinary political year, it should be no surprise that the national conventions — after decades of being mere coronation ceremonies — will become crucibles for democracy. The parties and the host cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia must be prepared to balance protest and policy.

The parties have a chance to make the process of choosing presidential candidates more fair and open. Or they can further close the game. Recalling Chicago in 1968, we wouldn't recommend that.


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