Empty Votes

by Dan Pollock | 5/8/00 5:00am

An elderly woman stands alone in a drab, yellowish room surrounded by voting booths. At a first glance, one would assume that the room is some type of storage room, perhaps where the voting booths are stored when they aren't being used. But then reality sets in. This is Primary Day 2000 in Washington, D.C. This is a polling place in the capital city of the world's most powerful democracy and it has been able to attract only one voter, coming to cast her empty vote.

That was the scene that greeted the world from the front page of last Wednesday's New York Times. It was a scene not unexpected in a primary season that ended almost two months ago. Despite the fact that primaries for house races, senate races and local races are still being contested, the vast majority of voters in states with post-March 7 primaries have decided to sit this year out.

With the hopes of combating this very problem, the Republican National Committee last Tuesday, proposed a new presidential nominating system, one that would, in theory, draw out the presidential primary season long enough to give everyone in the country a chance to choose a nominee.

The Republicans' plan is to split all of the states into four groupings, based on population. The 12 smallest populated states, including the District of Columbia, would be allowed to hold their primaries on the first Tuesday in March. The second group of states would have theirs in April, the next group in May, and the final group, including California, New York, Texas and Florida, would be required to hold their primaries in June. Any state could hold their primary later than the scheduled date, but states that moved their primary ahead of the date would be subject to a penalty of 50-90 percent of their delegates at the convention. The party's main goal is to allow candidates who win a few of the early primary states to have an opportunity to raise money between March and June that they could use to compete in the largest states' primaries.

It isn't entirely clear whether the Republican Party is making these changes in the hopes of making it easier for a John McCain-type candidate to win, or because they feel that the current nominating system has put them at an unfair disadvantage. After losing two consecutive presidential races, the Republican Party may worry that their nominating system is producing unelectable candidates. Certainly there were some Democrats in the 1980's who felt that the nominating reforms after the 1968 election created a nominating system that always chose candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, who would never be able to win broad electoral support. But nowadays, the Democrats have given only lukewarm reception to the idea of changing a system that they have mostly benefited from. Of course if Al Gore loses the presidential race, there may be much more incentive for reform.

The bigger question is whether such reforms are truly the best way to make the primary system more inclusive. Earlier this year, the National Association of Secretaries of States proposed the idea of creating a system of four regional primaries. Each region would have an equal number of people so that no one region would represent a larger portion of the delegates. The regions would hold their primaries the first Tuesday of each month, March through June. The regions would have a rotation by which the region that held their primary on the first Tuesday in March during one presidential year would hold it on the first Tuesday in June during the next presidential year. A regional basis for primaries would also make it easier for candidates with small budgets to campaign without having to fly back and forth across the country.

The biggest criticism for any type of reform is that the primary season is already too long, and the best solution would be to scrap the whole thing in exchange for a national primary election. Although a national primary would be fairer than the system we currently have, (where candidates have to campaign on a national scale but not everyone gets to vote) it would give a tremendous advantage to the wealthy, the celebrity, and the party elites' pre-selected candidate.

Not everyone agrees that reforming the primary system is the best way to improve democracy in America. There are those that say low turnout for primaries or general elections is not really a problem, but merely a symptom of a strong economy and a relatively peaceful international scene, as far as the United States is concerned. In response to that, I suggest skeptics refer to the levels of turnout in the New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and California primaries. The record high turnout for those primaries stands in stark contrast to the record low turnout for the latest round of primaries. Americans are not disinterested in voting -- we are sick of elections in which only one person is running. Having only one person on a ballot isn't democracy, and it needs to end.

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