COMMENTARY: Less than 1 percent of the population in Iowa and New Hampshire decide who gets to move on to another set of states. The parties decide which candidates qualify for the national debates so that the 1 percent can figure out for whom to vote. Each state has a different system — some allow independents to vote in party primaries, some have no primaries, some allow only party members to vote — and they all vote for a slate of delegates they have never met.
The craziness of the presidential primaries puts how insane our national nomination process is front and center. As the beacon of democracy for the world, this is no way to run an election. What broke and who broke it?
The two major political parties have to accept the blame for this mess. I am in my 50s, and as a debater in high school the national topic was resolved: that the United States shall significantly alter the selection process of presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
This was 40 years ago. Nothing has changed.
Because of the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to run a presidential campaign, the first few states determine the outcome of the whole election. Voters in later states have much less power than those in earlier states, which would seem to violate several constitutional amendments simultaneously.
Then delegates, who were elected through 50 different systems, go to a convention with rules crafted by party insiders with the possibility that the will of the people could be completely ignored. Not that anyone could divine what the will of the people might be this time around because there is not a national election of any kind.
As a high school debater, my debate partner and I suggested a system of four regional primaries with the order of the four regional primaries rotating every election cycle. The top vote-getter would go to the general election. One person, one vote, no caucuses, no single state carrying extraordinary influence because it is the first contest, no party convention to overturn the popular will.
With the benefit of 40 years in the private sector, in elected office and a few as a U.S. diplomat, where I spent several years speaking abroad about America as the beacon of democracy to friends and enemies alike, I would amend my debate plan as follows: Remove the primaries once and for all from the parties since they proved they can’t create a functioning nomination system. Make them true first-round public elections where all voters can vote for all candidates in four regional primaries with the top two vote getters going to the general election. That way all candidates must reach out and listen to all voters from the very beginning.
No more tacking to the extreme left/right of the party base to win the primary, then insincerely tacking back to the center for the general.
The parties have had 40 years to fix this mess since I debated this topic in 1974. The 2016 election cycle proves it could not be more dysfunctional, but it did not happen overnight. It took 40 years of hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington, and billions of dollars of dark money being funneled by both parties to true believers, for voters to finally wake up and realize that neither party cares about governing — they care about winning and about control.
The health of our democracy is not good, but we can fix it. Let’s show the world how to run a democracy and get the parties out of the election business. Our system does not work — did you notice?
Bob Perls is a former New Mexico state representative, former U.S. diplomat, and former champion high school debater.