Americans Call for a Primary Makeover More people are declaring that the system of nominating a U.S. presidential candidate is broken. Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson talks with Melissa Block about the idea of rotating regional primaries for presidential elections. And Rob Richie of Fairvote talks with Block about an idea known as the American Plan.
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Americans Call for a Primary Makeover

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Americans Call for a Primary Makeover

Americans Call for a Primary Makeover

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Pick your verb: leapfrogging, jockeying, scrambling, muscling to the front of the pack. They all describe what many states are doing to get an earlier spot for the primary vote in 2008.

Today, Michigan's senate passed a bill to move that state's vote up from February 26th to January 15th. And yesterday, Arizona's governor moved that state's contest to join a crowd, voting on to February 5th. That date is being called in a campaign year of escalating hyperbole, Super Duper Tuesday, or the…

Mr. ROB RICHIE (Executive Director, FairVote): Tsunami Tuesday Primary.

BLOCK: Nineteen states are now scheduled to hold primaries on February 5th. And of course, by state law, Iowa and New Hampshire insists on going first, which means the Iowa caucus could be catapulted into the middle of this December.

We're going to hear now from two people who think this free-for-all primary system is flat-out broken and have some ideas on how to fix it.

Mr. RICHIE: What we have is a slow motion stampede toward, basically, 2007.

BLOCK: That's Rob Richie of the non-profit, non-partisan group FairVote. And here is Kentucky's secretary of state, Republican Trey Grayson.

Secretary TREY GRAYSON (Republican, Kentucky): There's a race to the front of the calendar, which in my view is more a like race to the bottom.

BLOCK: Trey Grayson is co-chair of a committee that's come up with a reform plan for the National Association of Secretaries of State. They want a rotating regional system. They say divide the country up into four big geographic sections - East, South, Midwest, and West; preserve tradition and let Iowa and New Hampshire vote first, then…

Sec. GRAYSON: Starting in March each of those regions would have a regional primary month dedicated to those states. The regions allow the candidates to avoid having to crisscross the country. They can focus on the region during that particular month and in the weeks proceeding up to that month.

The other thing that we do is we rotate it, so whatever region goes first. So for example, let's say the south draws the first month, the south will then move to the back of the line four years later, and the next region would come up. So, every 16 years, a region would get to go first. And the advantage of that is that whether you're a large state or a small state, you're not going to be locked in to being in the front of the calendar or the middle of the calendar, or the back of the calendar. You're going to be, at some point, always in the front. And the goal is that that would encourage all the states to want to participate.

BLOCK: You'd have a chance to the front once every 16 years.

Sec. GRAYSON: Every 16 years.

BLOCK: But wouldn't that pretty much disenfranchise huge chunks of the country for those off years when they're not at the front of the pack?

Sec. GRAYSON: It could, but those huge chunks of the country are already disenfranchised right now. If you're not on February 5th or earlier this time -and I actually am speaking from a state that falls into that category, our primary is in May - we'll have all the candidates and the ballots and everything else will be absolutely meaningless.

And under this plan, it gives all the states the opportunity to, at some point, be enfranchised and be earlier. And so I think it's a much better system than we have right now, and it's fair to all the states because they're all treated somewhat equally by having that rotating regional system.

BLOCK: If you look at the way the primary system is now, can you see some value to the fact that even though that it - maybe this pell-mell scrambled to the front, at least more people will have votes that count that more - there would be more states voting early and that those primary votes will count this time around?

Sec. GRAYSON: I think you can make that case a little bit. I just - one of my biggest concern is just while more people may be voting, we're going to see the candidates are not going to really - could be campaigning in all these states. They're going to ride off some of these early states. And while the voters might have a say, they're not going to really get a chance to engage with these candidates and have the opportunity to maybe make a more informed decision as you could if the candidates actually campaign in that state, or all of them did.

BLOCK: Well, Trey Grayson, look ahead to 2012 and tell me if you really think that there will be some national system in place for the primary vote that will look very different from what we're seeing in 2008.

Sec. GRAYSON: I think it'd be very difficult to come to consensus for 2012. My hope, though, is that we can at least come to consensus. If the current system is broken, something needs to be done, and we have a very serious discussion over the next couple of years about how to do it, and maybe 2016 can ultimately be the goal.

We're going to try our best to try to change and improve the system for 2012. But regardless who's elected president, that person will be running for reelection. And that party or that candidate may not have the incentive to change the rules to make it fairer for other candidates - maybe they'll open up a primary challenge. So, maybe they're going through this. We might have to say, all right, let's focus on 2016 because we don't know who's going to be on the ballot in 2016. I think change is coming. It's just maybe not as fast as I would hope.

BLOCK: That's Trey Grayson, secretary of state of Kentucky.

Now to Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote. He says the regional rotating plan is better than what's in place now, but he likes another plan even better. It's called - how's this for a loaded patriotic name - the American plan. The idea is smaller states vote first/.

Mr. RICHIE: It starts off with states that collectively - all of them have no more than eight congressional districts. So it could be one state with eight or, you know, five states with one, and one state with three, some combination of states representing eight congressional districts. But because of that relatively smaller, where retail politics can happen, in the next cycle two weeks later, the number of states voting would collectively have 16 congressional districts and it would keep going up by eight until the fourth cycle when it would jump up to a big enough number that all of the states would have a chance to be part of that primary cycle.

But otherwise, it's like an inverted pyramid, gradually getting up to where, by the final contest, the biggest number of states or the biggest population states would be voting and really giving the final decision almost certainly about who the party's nominee would be.

BLOCK: So it's ramping up more gradually and it's being spread out over a longer period of time?

Mr. RICHIE: Exactly. And so you have a chance for a candidate to stumble and recover, which we've seen historically happened. Bill Clinton sort of stumbled early on with some of the Gennifer Flowers controversy and then was able to recover. You couldn't do that in the cycle that we're going to go through next year. You also could see a candidate jump in and still be able to get in even by the third cycle or some cycle like that. And most of the delegates are still to be decided, so that you could have more deliberation and more ability to see if the candidates are ready to be that party's nominee.

BLOCK: This all assumes that there is real value to retail politics, to going around, shaking hands, sitting in people's living rooms. Is that an archaic notion, do you think?

Mr. RICHIE: I don't think it is. I think talking to ordinary voters is a valuable part of the process. It's not the only value, which is why you want to balance. But I think that it's the time when you get the greatest range of debate about policies; when it's not done through simplified debates and television ads, but through real conversation and interaction with people.

And yet, at the same time, we're a big nation of 300 million people, so you have to ultimately have big states and big populations in a democratic system having the most value and greatest weight. But you want to have that balance. And that's what I think the American plan achieves.

BLOCK: You know, there are rules, of course, in place now. They're set by the national parties for how this should work, but states seem to be ignoring them right and left. How would you enforce any of this? How would you make a plan stick and have the states abide by it?

Mr. RICHIE: Well, part of it is that states are making a rational decision that if they're not early, they won't matter. And they're even realizing that being part of Tsunami Tuesday won't necessarily matter as much as they thought. I think if you have a process that they all believe in and they all, collectively, within their party choose to adopt, it's going to be a lot more likely that they'll stick to it.

So I think that the parties are the place to start the change and they can do it. That's part of what makes this whole conversation interesting is that unlike a lot of parts of our politics, it doesn't take congressional legislation, it doesn't even take state legislation. That kind of legislation is really more implementation after the parties can come to their own change process.

And the Republican Party came very close to adopting a graduated primary schedule back in 2000, the Delaware plan, which is similar to the American plan in that graduated approach. And they almost did it. And we would be having a whole different conversation right now if they had.

BLOCK: Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote. We also heard from Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

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