Turnout Should be of Primary Importance

Good riddance to the old presidential primary calendar. As state after state, tired of playing second fiddle to Iowa and New Hampshire, moves up its primary to February 5, we are dismantling a system whose only rationale was tradition. And tradition, in a rapidly changing world, is no way to pick a president.

But we are replacing the old system with a new schedule that is deeply flawed-flawed not because it effectively creates a national primary day (though that is indeed a problem, given the amount of money required to successfully run a national race), but because it is just as arbitrary as the old method. It serves no national interest -- just the interests of state pols eager to have the ear of a future president and of individual states wanting to turn their pet issue into the next ethanol, with candidates falling over each other every four years to take up its mantle. Instead, we ought to have a presidential primary calendar based on reason, not politics, and we should use this opportunity, before the new calendar becomes entrenched, to craft a system that serves the original purpose of the primaries: promoting participation in the democratic process.

So here's an idea: let's reward voter participation. Let's decide the primary calendar according to the state-by-state voter turnout of the previous presidential election, so the state that had the highest percentage turnout goes first, the state with the second-highest turnout follows, and so on. Every election year, we decry low turnout. This is a way to actually do something about it.

Such a system might not only reward voter turnout but also increase it. Under a participation- rewarding system, if state politicians want the attention of the presidential candidates and the national media, they are going to have to earn it. That might mean installing more voting machines, allowing election-day voter registration, or adopting Oregon's successful vote-by-mail system. In 2004, only six states allowed citizens to register to vote on the day of the election, but four of the six were among the five states with the highest turnout. We can increase participation. We just need to provide politicians with an incentive to do it.

A system that rewards participation will not just motivate politicians to encourage voting -- it will also inspire individual voters to go to the polls. It is no accident that of the five states with the lowest turnout in 2004, only one (West Virginia) was among the 19 so-called "swing states," and of the five states with the highest turnout, four were swing states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, and New Hampshire). People are more likely to vote when they believe their vote will have consequences. For citizens in solidly "red" or "blue" states, whose influence is diminished by the winner-take-all system of assigning electoral votes, a method that rewards participation will provide a tangible benefit to going to the polls. For those citizens, who will have endured the disproportionate attention the candidates pay to swing states, a primary calendar based on participation will at least allow them the chance to make the next election about their issue. For example, you don't hear many of the candidates talking about public education these days. Things might be different if they had to compete first in a state home to any of the 50 largest cities in the United States (Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina would not make the list).

The states with "first-in-the-nation" status argue that if we design a system that gives every state an equal opportunity to play a major role in choosing the presidential nominees, we risk losing that which allegedly makes the primary system work: "retail politics." They say that if a large or even medium-sized state goes first, the candidates will not have to meet, engage, and win over individual voters, as they do now. There is just one problem with this argument: there is no evidence to back it up. Ask any senator or governor of a large state if he or she was able to win without meeting and engaging voters. It is silly to assume that the people of New York, Ohio, or Minnesota (the state with the highest turnout in 2004) could not put the candidates through the ringer just as well as the citizens of any other state. And even if there are some advantages to small-state retail politics, are they really worth the sacrifice of a basic democratic principle: that every American should have an equal opportunity to select the next president?

It is not enough to lament low voter turnout or disinterest in government. We need to look in the mirror and ask if we are doing anything to change it. Playing the same old game with the presidential primaries won't get us anywhere. It's time we look at a system that will.