What's Primary for Primaries

The two parties need to adjust who votes and when

Before the 2000 primaries fades into history, let's consider whether this is the way each political party really wants to pick a candidate who could lead the world's sole superpower.

This year's state-by-state delegate contests were memorable for more than the hot but brief challenges by Bill Bradley and John McCain, who both brought fresh ideas to the national dinner table.

The McCain challenge served to highlight the wider availability of the "open" primary. These increasingly popular contests allow independents and members of an opposing party to vote for a candidate of a particular party. McCain attracted many of these "cross-over" voters, upsetting many Republicans.

Open primaries are a sort of mini-general election before the official general election in November. They can test the candidates' likely electability as well their popularity among the party faithful.

That very system of allowing partyless voting in a party competition - or at least an extreme variation on it in California and three other states - faces a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court. The issue: Can states prevent parties from having only party members choose their party nominees?

Bunched-up, early contests

This primary season was also notable as the first year of heavily "front-loaded" primaries - that is, many came in February and early March, particularly on the GOP side.

This happened largely because larger states - especially California - were worried about losing political clout by holding a primary long after the contests in the smaller states of New Hampshire and Iowa had already created the media impression of an unbeatable winner in each party.

This concentration of primaries within just a few weeks also required candidates to come up with plenty of money well before February and to spend a couple years glad-handing the most powerful local politicians.

Those who jump into the race too late - as McCain and Bradley found out - come up short on money for TV ads and political endorsements. Running for president now requires a three- to four-year effort that may lock out worthy candidates.

The bunching-up of primaries has also left nearly five months of downtime between the de facto nomination and the summer party conventions. While that may be welcome relief to many Americans, it's a fit-and-start way to choose an American president.

Candidates won't feel the heat of public scrutiny in more states where issues might be very different from those in Iowa or New Hampshire. Regional variations still do matter in these United States.

Court's choice for California

Is this process worth fixing? Will the US have chosen the wrong persons to run for president?

The Supreme Court's ruling on California's "blanket" primary, expected by July, could tell the states not to dictate how the parties should pick their nominees.

The California system, approved by 60 percent of the state's voters as a ballot initiative, puts all candidates from all parties on the same ballot, obliterating primaries as a nominating exercise for party members. It could well run afoul of the First Amendment's right of free association.

The California system is distinct from systems used in 20 or so other states where the state Democratic or Republican parties have chosen willingly to run primaries that are open to cross-over or independent voters, and where each party has a distinct ballot.

The Supreme Court might well prevent a state from mandating how a party picks candidates, but allow state parties to broaden their base of voters with open contests. But that won't address the question of whether open primaries might lead to someday having no need for political parties at all.

And the front-loading? Logic favors a radical change. Republican Party planners have come up with a scheme of rolling primaries with the smallest states going first in March and nominating votes in progressively larger states coming in April, May, and, decisively, in June. The National Association of Secretaries of States proposes four regional primaries over the same four months, with the order rotated every four years.

The two parties should look at these ideas - with no sentimental exemptions for New Hampshire and Iowa. Democracy is a work in progress, and after a few decades of holding party primaries, there's still much progress to be made.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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