TAKOMA PARK, MD., AND SAN FRANCISCO — Most states have yet to vote, but the Democratic race for president is effectively over unless John Kerry makes a colossal blunder. The rushed primary schedule and Senator Kerry's winning aura in the wake of the Iowa caucuses gives him nearly unstoppable momentum.
Some party leaders are pleased with a quick win that allows them to focus on fundraising for November. But Kerry hasn't faced the intense scrutiny he'll get from the Bush campaign, and most states won't have competitive primaries that draw voter interest.
The nominating process should be fairer and more inclusive and effective. Reform is hardly far-fetched: Republicans nearly overhauled their primary schedule in 2000, and Democrats plan a major review by 2006.
Reform should enhance what already works. In contrast to most general elections, contested presidential primaries offer a meaningful range of views with real diversity of opinion. The intense focus on Iowa and New Hampshire encourages candidates to have sustained contact with ordinary voters rather than wage campaigns solely from TV studios. Potential nominees must withstand challenges that test their mettle.
But parties could strengthen themselves - and democracy itself - with reforms like these:
Rotate opening states: A lottery among small and mid-size states should determine the first to hold primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire should not be the sole focus of candidates' grass-roots campaigning. Different states have different concerns, particularly those with bigger cities and more racial diversity.
An inclusive, sensible schedule: To avoid a nine-month general election campaign of sniping and personal attacks, primaries should return to running from March to June. After the opening primaries, small states would vote in a "mini Super Tuesday," followed by a break that would allow voters to give front-runners a second look. Bigger states would then vote, followed by more breaks, until the biggest states would vote in a decisive final round.
Require full representation: In Democratic primaries and caucuses, candidates should win a fair share of convention delegates through full representation, where 25 percent of the vote earns a proportional 25 percent of delegates. Republicans mostly use a winner-take-all system, where the first-place finisher receives all delegates. This distorts results and can allow an unrepresentative candidate to win big when the opposition vote is split among several candidates. Both parties should require full representation and consider lowering the 15 percent threshold necessary for Democrats to win delegates.
Adopt Iowa's "second choice" system: Caucus participants can vote for stronger candidates if their first choice can't win delegates. Primary voters would gain this enhanced power if they could indicate their second and third choice rather than vote for just one. More voters would help elect delegates (in this year's early primaries more than a quarter of voters supported candidates who didn't win delegates), and candidates would be more likely to reach out to supporters of other candidates and run positive campaigns.
Remember the youth: Young voters - who are most likely to be unregistered and are disproportionately registered as independents and would benefit from being able to register on the day of the primary and vote even if registered as an independent. New Hampshire's primary rules allows this - and while youth turnout remained low this year, young voters participated in bigger numbers than in 2000.
Fix the financing: When most leading candidates opt out of public financing, the system is broken. A 4-to-1 public match for small donations should be provided, and participating candidates given additional funds when opponents opt out.
Americans deserve elections in which more of them make a difference, choices are meaningful, and their votes count. Political parties can adopt most of these changes without Congressional legislation. Let's push for reform before 2008.
• Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the center's senior analyst.