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A Modestly Proposed Replacement for the Primary Process

Retirement has given me time to muse and think about things and processes in a more dispassionate manner. The hugest farce we all have to endure is the political primary season leading up to the general election for President. The posturing, the posing, the empty and sometimes frightening political rhetoric, and above all the waste of dollars spent on getting some fool more votes in states that in more rational times, barring some natural disaster there, would never make the news. Really, does anyone care who folks in Iowa think should be President? Why does Iowa have this power?

The two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, have no official standing in the government of the United States. They are privately funded organizations to which many folks within our government personally belong, like the Elks or the Freemasons, or even your local PTA. There is no requirement that they have to throw open the selection process for their leadership to the general public. In fact it makes little sense that they do since many from the opposing party can cross over and vote for the weakest or wackiest candidate from the other side. Indeed many do, which explains a lot. A century ago, before mass communication, each party would hold gatherings in each state and they would vote on which candidate would be the nominee from the party in that state. Then delegates from each state would attend a national convention and thru a series of votes would decide on the party’s candidate. I think this process was better than the public mess we have now because we didn’t have to hear every idiotic thing each candidate says repeated by every news outlet.

And then there is the money. A whole mess of it. Candidates spend most of their time on the phone trying to drum up funds so they can buy advertising on TV, radio, bumper stickers, buttons and anything else they can paste their name on. And folks that contribute expect consideration. How exactly is this different from bribery?

Now it is the states that hold these primaries placing employees and/or volunteers at the polling places and providing the voting machines and other equipment. What if they just scrapped this whole expensive and goofy presidential candidate selection system in favor of a TV show called “American President”? No more campaigns, no more money influencing the candidates, no more nuttiness of having Iowa determine who can continue to run. Make political contributions illegal. Make political ads illegal. Make sure “American President” is on free TV shown repeatedly so everyone can see it. Heaven knows there are enough channels. I’m sure the major networks would offer to air it on a rotating basis, especially as the end approaches and it gets interesting, or maybe just for pure entertainment value at the start when all the wackos are hooted off.

It will start the same way as “American Idol” with auditions across the country. Any citizen from any party who qualifies for the office can audition. They present their ideas to a panel of political science and public policy professors. Yes, some will get eviscerated by the comments of the judges, but that will be part of the process and the entertainment. Eventually a field of, say 20, get chosen. Then each week the presidential hopefuls answer questions put by the judges for the TV audience who then vote by calling a phone number and the list is whittled down to a field of, say 4, viable candidates. These will then make up the national ballot that goes to the traditional vote. The show will for all extents and purposes replace the expensive, slanted, lie-filled campaigns we have had to endure for well over a year leading up to our presidential elections. I hear so many folks bemoaning the parodies that our two major political parties have become. A system like this could very well make them both obsolete.

It is often said that all politics are local. There would be no reason why this same approach couldn’t be used for the offices of any state, county, or city. In fact it would have to start there as electing a president with no allegiance to either party saddled with a congress of party partisans would be useless. We have to rid the system of the political gamesters who attempt to rig our free elections with loaded issues that prey on the fears of our citizens and on their baser impulses. Removing the forum for those types of campaigns would be a great start.

This started out as a facetious conversation in a bar. You know the type you have after a couple of drinks when you have such a sense of clarity that you know that you and a couple of friends can solve all the world’s problems from your barstool. But later I began to seriously consider it and, you know, I don’t see a downside to this. Do you? I know it can never happen as neither party will relinquish its death grip on the throat of our nation; but I can dream, can’t I?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

The system is broken…(and here’s my cynicism), but who will be willing to fix it if beholden to the money that comes from either of the major parties?

I wish we could see something akin to the change you propose, Ed…and I’m from Iowa. 🙂

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Ed – I am not sure about the reality show idea (President Kardashian?!) but I do think a good first step would be to abolish the electoral college and go to a nationwide primary system.

Peter Sperry

@Ed — This idea has some potential. It would need refinement but could be doable. The first challange it would face is that ballot access is controlled at the state level and the two parties actually do have both direct and indirect standing at the state level. The best way to meet this challange would be to work with the National Conference of State Legislatures (leans left) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (leans right) and the big three governors associations to get states to agree on uniform ballot access laws which would allow the four finalists to get on their respective ballots. The next challange would be the restrictions on campaign finance, advertising etc. Sorry, but the First amendment is fairly clear. The Supreme Court has already started to reverse the ill advised efforts to neuter the First amendment and is unlikely to uphold attempts to do away with it entirely. We will just have to live with a spirited public discourse even if we do not like what the other side has to say. But I tend to think the format you suggest would so far overshadow paid campaign efforts they would be inconsequential anyway. It is one of the things I like about the idea. Finally, I would change the make up of the panel of judges. The bias of academia is to well documented to give them that much power. I would suggest instead a panel made up of 2 former presidents, 2 former governors, 1 retired Senator, 1 retired House member and 2 retired SES. Members of the panel should be chsen by their peers in a secret ballot. I am sure addtitional tweaks could be helpful but overall I think you have a good idea.

Ed Albetski

@ Bill, Kardashian…. Aren’t they the lizardy folks who oppressed the Bajorans on STAR TREK?

I think we have a sideshow situation now. After Gray Davis was outed I remember Gallagher (the comedian), Mary Carey (the porn star) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor), along with a large assortment of wannabees all running for Governor of California. The actor won. (I was shocked, SHOCKED.)

@Peter, I’m not so much against candidates saying crazy things, as I am appalled that no one calls them out on what they say. It only devolves the political conversation in this country to level of the folks in tin foil hats.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Ed – Well, the Kardashian sisters are rather lizardy and they are oppressing Reality TV.

Yes, a national primary would probably attract the sideshow candidates but you have that already with the current system. Bozo the Clown has ran along with Grandpa from the Munsters to name just a few. The best thing about democracy is that everyone has a voice and the worst thing about democracy is EVERYONE has a voice.

Jay Johnson

Awesome idea Ed, more people vote on American Idol than in the presidental election anyway! Probably never happen, but I like your point about local government. I’m sure there is some local government willing to try something as crazy as this. 🙂

Peter Sperry

@Mark — I’ve often wondered if our Revolution had taken place about 50 years later if we might not have ended up with something closer to the current British system which evolved after the war (Lord North was the last appointed PM). Of course if my ancestor Jacob and the rest of Daniel Morgan’s riflemen had made it about 4 blocks further in 1775, you might have our system today. BTW, thanks for sending him back.

Steve Richardson

Open primaries would be an improvement. All taxpayers pay for them and yet the 40% of voters who consider themselves Independents have to sit out the primary phase or (in Virginia) pick which half of the race they want to participate in. Why are partisan races subsidized, anyway? The California special election was a case study in the effectiveness of our plurality (first past the post) system at ensuring exactly two parties dominate elections. Arnold won because everyone learns that votes for also-rans don’t count at all. Alternative methods for counting votes, such as Approval and Condorcet systems, would improve our ability to express preferences.