France this spring is setting an electoral example which deserves serious consideration in the United States. The total elapsed time from the first round of the French presidential election through the runoff to the assumption of power by the new President was less than a month. And in less than another month there will be a new Parliament, again after two rounds of elections.
Contrast this with the American timetable. The presidential selection process formally begins in the Iowa caucuses a full year before the transfer of power. In the interim there is what seems like an endless succession of state primaries leading to the anticlimax of the party conventions and culminating with candidates and citizenry alike staggering exhausted to the polls. If the winner is not the incumbent, there then follows an interregnum of two and a half months.
Most Americans would probably agree that this is far too long. The election campaign hovers over the country, influencing in one way or another the decisions of those who are running the government and of those who would like to run it. The purposes of an electoral campaign are to illuminate the differences between the contenders nd to excite the public interest. American campaigns go on so long that the differences are blurred and the public is bored.
States vie with each other in moving up the electoral calendar through early caucuses or primaries. This attracts attention and means an invasion by candidates, campaign workers, media representatives, and assorted hangers-on. It provides a business bonanza in an otherwise dead season for hotels, restaurants, and our rental agencies. But do the rest of us really have to tolerate the electoral process being held hostage by the innkeepers and restauranteurs of Iowa and New Hampshire?
Consider an alternative suggested by the French practice.
First of all, scrap the conventions. They are obsolete. Their purposes are four:
(1) To select a presidential candidate. The conventions now accomplish this by ratifying the results of the primaries. In this respect, they are as useful as the electoral college which in December ratifies the result of the November election.
(2) To slect vice-presidential candidate. The conventions accomplish this by rubber stamping the selection of the presidential nominee.
(3) To adopt a party platform. Quarrels over the contents of this document sometimes provide one of the few sparks of life in a convention, but anybody who thinks a platform is important is invited to try to find a voter who has actually read one -- in full.
(4) To rally and inspire the party faithful. This is hard to do when the faithful are yawning with boredom.
Instead of a succession of primaries and caucuses stretching over the five months from January to June and instead of conventions, let there be a single nationwide primary, and let it be later rather than earlier in the election year -- say, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in October. Voters in each party would choose among the aspirants for that party's nomination, and the two winners would then designate their respective vice-presidential running mates. Congressional candidates would be chosen the same day. Winners would then have four weeks to campaign before the general election in November. This is twice as long as the French have, but mercifully briefer than what Americans are now subjected to.
In the US in 1980, Democrats would have chosen between Carter and Kennedy; Republicans among Reagan, Bush Connally, Baker, Dole, Crane -- and Anderson, who would not have found found it necessary to become an independent.
It may be argued against this suggestion that it would exclude independents from the November ballot. So be it. The present system works effectively to preclude them from winning in any event. But the suggestion would not exclude third parties from either the primary round in October or the final round in November.
Nor would it necessarily shorten the pre-primary campaigns of individual candidates. Each could begin running as early or as late as seemed to him most advantageous. But by removing the milestones (one might almost say millstones) of consecutive state primaries from the road to the nomination, it would probably tend to shorten the whole process.
The winners of the October primary would be determined on the basis of electoral votes, just as the winner is determined in November. The US is sometime going to have to do something about the anachronism of the electoral college, but that another -- and highly controversial -- issue. It has been argued for a long time with no result, and it would require a constitutional amendment.
It would also be a good idea to shorten the period between election and inauguration, preferably by having the inauguration earlier; but this too would require a constitutional amendment.
A nationwide primary could be provided by a simple act of Congress.