In some 39 states with presidential primaries, taxpayers pay out millions to run a vote that helps the two major parties select their nominees. Yet despite this use of public money, the primaries are in trouble as states leapfrog to be first, forcing earlier campaigns, more money, and chaos within the parties.
One idea gaining popularity would be to set up a federally run system that would try to curb calender competition by rotating primaries among regions or allowing smaller states to go first. But such proposals come with uncertainties, such as possible violation of a constitutional right of states to run elections. Taxpayers would still need to pay up and such schemes may not solve a common problem: low voter turnout in primaries.
A better idea would be for primary states to return to the practice of state parties arranging their own selection of delegates (who then back a candidate at the national nominating convention) – as many states still do in party conventions or in party caucuses. State parties might even hold their own private primaries, while state governments continue to run the general elections that actually elect public servants.
Some critics fear the old-fashion, pre-primary ways of selecting nominees might lead to backroom deals or to an organized minority controlling the process. But that argument no longer holds up in the modern age of massive opinion polling and aggressive media (Iowa's caucuses being the best example). Such new tools as the Internet would keep many eyes open.
Party-run selection of delegates would end the dubious use of state money for a private exercise by a private party – picking a nominee to run in the general election for president (which taxpayers should pay for).
It would also save taxpayer money. The cost of running a presidential primary continues to rise – in California, it's $90 million – as states or counties must pay for poll workers and other necessities.
Before the 2004 presidential race, several states simply canceled their late-season primaries, opting out because of tight budgets or because they saw little benefit to pay for a process in which earlier primaries had already set the presumptive nominees.
The current race to manipulate the primaries by advancing election dates began after 1984, when Southern Democrats saw that year's early primaries pick a Northern liberal (Minnesota's Walter Mondale). But the South's later attempt to hold a regional primary failed when it turned out those states didn't choose the same nominee.
It's not that the parties or candidates lack for money if they want to run the nomination process without taxpayer help. The Democrats' top money-getter, Hillary Clinton, has so far raised $90 million. Among Republican candidates, Mitt Romney tops the field with $63 million. Part of each candidate's war chests could go to each state party to run the nominating process.
No doubt primaries help narrow down the field of candidates. They are open systems that bring in a wide number of people. But the system is now moving toward disaster. It's time to take the winnowing of presidential candidates back to the grass roots and let the parties pay their own way to their nominations.