Opinion

The case for a national primary

Every vote really should count, not just the early ones.

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I didn't expect to feel sad the day John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani left the presidential race. Then Mitt Romney bailed, too. I probably wouldn't have voted for any of them, but now I won't have the chance.

Here in North Carolina, we aren't holding our presidential primary until May 6. Though I follow the news, I didn't bother to find out our exact primary date until recently, because I figured it didn't matter. By the time I'm allowed to vote, other states will probably have already chosen the winners.

Sure, it's possible come May that Mike Huckabee will still be a candidate. It's possible the race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama will stay close.

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But why am I forced to pick among a handful of candidates, when citizens in New Hampshire choose among many? Early primary and Super Tuesday voters determine the selections for the rest of us. In my view, that makes some votes more important than others – not exactly a concept we associate with the United States.

That's why I propose a national primary. Everyone would vote on the same day. Picture it: States couldn't elbow one another to be first anymore. National conventions couldn't banish some states' delegates for shirking tradition and jumping ahead in line as happened with Florida and Michigan. Democratic voters there have been effectively told their votes won't be tallied. This is fair?

It wasn't until the 1970s that a majority of states even had presidential primaries. Before then, party leaders made the decision about who would run for president, and the candidates' campaigns were targeted to them. I'm not saying our current system is worse, but you have to wonder about a process that lets Iowans vote in January, while South Dakotans have to wait until June.

There's no question that having a national primary would pose challenges. Candidates wouldn't have the money to travel to every state or run omnipresent television ads.

So what?

We can read what they have to say in newspapers and on the Web. We can watch or hear them in broadcast interviews and debates. Maybe we could even set a cap on how much each candidate can spend, so the contest is more about ideas and less about fundraising.

As long as we're talking change, I know I'm not the only American who has trouble grasping why delegates do the electing for us.

Here's a crazy idea: What if we all just cast our primary votes for a presidential nominee on one day, counted them, and let the winners from each party compete in the general election?

Some opponents to a national primary say it would give too much advantage to well-known candidates. It's possible that's true.

But as is, plenty of civic-minded people tune out the election, and not just because of the endless months of campaigning and political reporting. If you live in one of the later-voting states and don't have the means to send big bucks to a candidate, there's not much reason to pay close attention. And that's wrong.

In North Carolina, I'm hearing some people talk with a bit of wistful hopefulness that maybe their primary votes might mean something this year.

One North Carolina newspaper devoted a front page story to the idea that the state's voters may influence the nominations for the first time in 20 years. But our votes for a presidential nominee – each American's vote for president – should always matter. The decision is too important not to have every voter involved who wants to be, and every vote really count.

Andrea Cooper is a writer and essayist.

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