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In a nation committed to democracy, the increasingly undemocratic character of our presidential primaries is a matter of serious concern. Both Vice President Al Gore '69 and Texas Gov. George W. Bush had their parties' nominations in the bag by March 7, before half of eligible voters had even had a chance to make their voices heard. This system is not "one man, one vote." And so we welcome a recent Republican committee proposal, the so-called Delaware plan, as a definite step in the right direction.
Winning the party nomination means winning enough delegates to the party's convention. In the current system, states engage in a "race to the bottom"--or a "race to the front"--pushing primaries back so their residents can cast votes that count. The result is called "front loading." Such a top-heavy primary process, in which few Americans cast votes that will matter, can hardly serve as an adequate test of a candidate's fitness for national office. In 1980, 21 percent of convention delegates were selected by March 15. Today, 63 percent are. A front-loaded process also leads to the current grim spectacle of a seven-month-long general election campaign.
In contrast, the Delaware Plan would let small-population states such as Rhode Island and Alaska go first (after the traditional Iowa and New Hampshire primaries), medium states next, and so on through four successive stages that culminate with large states like California, Texas and New York. By the end of the process in June, only 53 percent of the delegates would have been selected before the big boys weighed in.
That means more debate. No more mad dash for Super Tuesday, after which the anointed can sit back and indulge the party's remaining primary voters in smug contentment. Every state would count, so even the front-runner would have to dig his heels in till the end--sweating, debating, persuading. Since smaller states are usually cheaper to campaign in, gone too would be the financial blitz in which a big-money candidate splurges early to knock his or her opponent out at the start. The Delaware Plan would make losing the first few primaries, currently an automatic disqualification, politically feasible. Again, the result would be longer, and therefore presumably more thoughtful, debate.
However, the plan faces opposition. Some Republicans, concerned for states' rights, have objected to the plan's coercive enforcement provisions, under which states whose legislatures do not adopt the plan could lose some 50 to 90 percent of their convention delegates. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has expressed only tepid interest in the plan and is giving greater consideration to a geographically-based rather than population-based system. We urge both parties to reconsider. As the establishments of each party have an interest in preserving the status quo, only bipartisan support can push the Delaware Plan into effect.
Primaries, after all, were initially intended to get rid of the smoke-filled back room, the political machine--and to make American politics more democratic. The Delaware Plan should help them truly do so.
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