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Howard Barbanel Headshot

Enfranchising Americans Through Electoral Reform

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Thanks to Rick Santorum's falling on his sword about a week ago ("suspending" his campaign) the 2012 presidential election, all seven months of it, is now on.

The realpolitik issue for Santorum was money. To compete in major markets such as New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and California requires big bucks and with his campaign losing momentum, the ammunition just wasn't there for Santorum to mount an offense, let alone a significant defense. For all intents and purposes, the primaries really ended before the middle of April.

Santorum's "suspension" of his campaign essentially makes all or most of the remaining primaries between now and June functionally irrelevant, yet many states will still spend millions of dollars running primaries that don't matter and that only a smattering of people will participate in. Yes, some people will still vote for Newt or the Quixotic Ron Paul, but really what will happen over the next few months will be a whole lot of horse trading and favor-pledging among and between party Poo Bahs to get those 1,144 needed-to-nominate delegates in line for Romney with a minimal amount of internal Republican agita. The GOP National Convention takes place at the end of August and the Republican ducks will all be dutifully herded into a row so as to marshal GOP efforts toward the November election.

Some of the big states missing out on the opportunity to vote in any meaningful primary between now and the convention are the aforementioned New York, Pennsylvania and Texas but they also include Indiana, North Carolina and New Jersey, to name but a few. What if the presidential election itself were decided solely by a passel of early-voting states? Would this be viewed as fair, democratic and inclusive? The present primary season scenario underscores the need for presidential electoral reform for the 21st century.

If states like California, Texas and New York (the three most populous states in the nation, representing more than a quarter of the total populace) can't be part of the nominating process, it raises the philosophical question of "why don't Americans who live in our largest states get to have a say?" Clearly, the answer is both the process and the money.

Until the latter part of the 20th century, the vastness of America combined with the snail's pace of communications and transportation set in (slow) motion a national presidential campaign process of extensive time duration. When you're traveling by horse and letters can take more than a week to go across a state, things took time and needed time. Life in much of the 18th and 19th centuries was, if nothing else, languid.

The reality of contemporary America is that we've been stitched together physically since the completion of the trans-continental railroad and the telegraph wires that ran alongside it. There are those who have a reverence for hidebound traditions harking back to days of yore and have no end of nostalgia for horse carriages and revolutionary war re-enactments but the only way we're going back to horses is if the cost of gasoline continues to escalate to untenable levels. Countries as steeped in tradition as England ("Chancellor of the Exchequer," anyone?) have figured out a way to conduct national primaries and elections all within the space of a few months and then change governments within the space of a few days after final election results.

To give all Americans belonging to the party of their choice the ability to have meaningful input as to determining their party's eventual nominee (and possible president), we need to move toward a one-day national primary, just as we have a one-day national election. There is no reason to have a protracted six-month primary schedule with states jockeying with one another for the distinction of being one of the first. All this does is make running for president a nearly three-year affair and increasingly, because of that, stacks the odds against late entrants or the less well-funded. It also, as previously mentioned, often renders many state primaries irrelevant and disenfranchises a plurality to a majority of Americans if the race is early. Fifty individual state races might have made sense in the pre-Civil War days of "states rights" and most folks living their whole lives within a five mile radius, but the presidency is a national office and Americans are a highly mobile and transient group now with fewer deep loyalties to their states of residence and a greater identification just as "Americans." Media is national and instantaneous. Candidates can speak to all Americans at one time.

The new nationwide primary should be held one month before party conventions. The primary should be a winner-take-all affair unless a winning candidate garners less than 50 percent of the vote and then there would be a run-off a week to 10 days later between the top two vote-getters. Party conventions should be held two months before the general election and the whole shebang, from primary to general election, should be no more than three months. The general election campaign should be no more than eight weeks in length so as to in the future spare the citizenry the interminable mind-numbing sadistic psychodrama that will be our current seven-month election campaign between Governor Romney and President Obama.