Take Jimmy Carter's Advice On The Primary Calendar

07/26/2006 06:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It shouldn't surprise anyone to hear that the Democrats could have made a bold visionary change, but instead decided to tinker around the edges of a problem. While I'm glad they're attempting anything new at all, I am also once again disappointed in them for missing a golden opportunity.

This lost opportunity was the chance to fundamentally reform our presidential primary system. It was suggested ten months ago by the bipartisan team of Jimmy Carter and James Baker III. What we got instead was a proposal to fix one tiny part of a much larger problem: the primary calendar's inherent unfairness (and even irrelevancy) to a huge majority of American voters.

This past weekend, the Democratic Party's "Rules and Bylaws Committee" endorsed a plan to bring at least some diversity to the early primary election calendar for the 2008 presidential race. The plan will add two new states - Nevada and South Carolina - to the traditional two kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Supporters of the plan are correct in saying it will give minorities greater leverage in the early primary process.

The current primary calendar puts the Iowa caucus on January 14, the New Hampshire primary on January 22, and then all other states from February 3 onwards. The new schedule would be: Iowa caucus (1/14), Nevada caucus (1/19), New Hampshire primary (1/22), South Carolina primary (1/29), and then everyone else afterwards.

It should be noted that this is not yet a done deal. The party as a whole could reject the committee's proposal, or New Hampshire could throw a hissy fit and move their primary before everyone else's.

Population numbers reveal in a stark fashion why changing the system has a lot of support. Here are the most recent figures (2004) from the US Census website for the four states, and the US as a whole (the placement of the links emphasizes the significant figures):

IA - 95% White, 91.7% White (non-Hispanic), 2.3% Black, 3.5% Hispanic/Latino
NH - 96.2% White, 94.3% White (non-Hispanic), 0.9% Black, 2.1% Hispanic/Latino
NV - 82.5% White, 61.2% White (non-Hispanic), 7.5% Black, 22.8% Hispanic/Latino
SC - 68.3% White, 65.6% White (non-Hispanic), 29.4% Black, 3.1% Hispanic/Latino
USA - 80.4% White, 67.4% White (non-Hispanic), 12.8% Black, 14.1% Hispanic/Latino

It's easy to see that adding Nevada and South Carolina would go a long way toward giving America's two biggest minorities a real voice in the nomination. This is obviously a good thing. But why not give everyone else a voice too? The wider problem is that the overwhelming majority of voters in the United States have no say whatsoever in determining their party's nominee.

I've written about this problem before in the San Jose Mercury News, from the point of view of California voters. Why should the most populous state in the Union play absolutely no part in nominating a presidential candidate? The logic boggles the mind. California (for those of you elsewhere) has bucked the trend of frontloading the primary calendar by pulling the plug on the experiment. Our past two presidential primaries were moved up to March, but two years ago politicians in both parties voted unanimously in both houses of our statehouse to move the primary back to June. This gives the politicians a shorter general election cycle (which benefits incumbents of both parties), but it also guarantees that by the time Californians vote, the nominee will already have been decided.

This problem extends beyond the Golden State's borders. Chris Cillizza recently wrote an interesting article on washingtonpost.com which explores which Democrats would be winners (and who would lose out) by adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early primary process. It's a great look at the political ramifications of such a change, and well worth reading. But there's an ominous line in it: "If, as expected, the nominee will be decided by Jan. 30, 2008...."

This is ominous for everyone who lives in the other 46 states, whose vote will essentially not count. The nomination wrapped up in January? Before anyone else has a chance to vote? So much for boosting voter turnout.

Jimmy Carter and James Baker's blue-ribbon Commission on Federal Election Reform proposed a much better idea of rotating regional primaries, which would add some fairness to the system. Keep New Hampshire and Iowa happy by allowing them to stay at the front (they suggest), but then split the rest of the country into four (unspecified) regions. Entire regions would vote on the same day, separated by a month or so from the other regions. The regional voting order would rotate, so (for instance) if the Northeast voted first in 2008, then they'd vote last in 2012 - and maybe the West or the Southeast would vote first that year. This way every region gets a chance at being the one that actually picked the nominee, but only once every four election cycles (every 16 years).

Because this idea is bipartisan and makes oodles of common sense, it has been largely ignored by both parties. Which is a shame. Because effectively disenfranchising 46 states out of 50 is a bad thing. It's bad for politics, bad for voter turnout, bad for both political parties, and bad for the country as a whole.

We can do better than this. The ideas are already out there. Letting Nevada and South Carolina participate in early primaries and caucuses is a good idea, and I hope it is given a chance to work. But I can't help feeling it's a baby step when it should have been a giant leap. And baby steps seem to be the Democrats' plan for everything these days.

Democrats should indeed be applauded for the timid steps they have proposed, especially since Republicans will most likely be forced to follow them. But it should be the kind of "polite" applause that entertainers hate - and definitely not a standing ovation.

[Carter and Baker's full report, titled "Building Confidence in U.S. Elections" is extremely comprehensive, and proposes some radical and fundamental solutions for all aspects of presidential elections. If the subject interests you, check it out, or at least scroll down to the bottom and read the summaries of their proposals for change.]