Outside editorial: Find a fairer way to hold primaries

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The presidential primary saga, now a full-fledged political soap opera, continued last week as the Republican National Committee recommended that Michigan and four other states lose half their convention delegates because their early primaries violate party rules.

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The halving of delegates makes Michigan the electoral equivalent of, say, West Virginia or North Dakota. That's a downgrade that Michigan, with the country's highest unemployment rate and systemic economic challenges, can't afford. Party officials say it may not happen; the convention's rules committee, a separate body, will ultimately decide how delegates are seated.

But combined with the recent withdrawal of most Democratic candidates from Michigan's Jan. 15 primary ballot and growing national angst over the current system, the RNC move points up - again - the need for serious reform.

All of this is a result of a party system that has become beholden to two small states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that believe it's their right to go first in the primary season and winnow the field. Yet voters in those states have no monopoly on political wisdom. Their issues are not so striking or universal that they merit special attention, and their make-up, being two of the whitest states in the union, is hardly representative.

It's possible that the parties, given the flap this year about change, could work out a system that makes more sense. That's the best possible outcome. But in case the worst happens, and the parties use their clout to enforce New Hampshire and Iowa's pre-eminence again, a national solution has to be worked out.

The country needs a primary system that assures maximum participation by voters with varied backgrounds, issues and interests. Regional primaries might work. Clustered primaries, where groups of states are selected for reasons other than geography, show promise.

Something other than the status quo has got to be worked out. Otherwise, the strife erupting for 2008 will be for naught, with Michigan and several other big states as the biggest losers.

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