Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Feb. 8, 2023

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In Our View: Presidential primaries process needs upgrade

The Columbian

As the Democratic National Committee met over the weekend, it called to mind the absurdities of how the United States chooses its candidates for president. It also was a reminder of our state’s ongoing efforts to play a more significant role in national politics.

That has been a difficult endeavor, given some of the quirks in our state’s election system. Prior to 2020, Washington’s presidential primary was held in May, often after the nominees had been decided. For the most recent presidential election, after years of urging from then-Secretary of State Kim Wyman, voters got to weigh in on presidential nominees in March, giving local voters more prominence on the national stage.

Now, state Democratic leaders have made a pitch for moving our state to an even earlier spot on the calendar.

The crux is that states with early primaries have an oversized impact on the nomination process. For years, Iowa and New Hampshire have desperately clung to their positions as the first two states to hold primaries (or, in Iowa’s case, caucuses).

But as The Washington Post wrote editorially last week: “The quirky, tradition-bound way in which political parties select their presidential standard-bearers has become less and less reflective of the dynamic, vast and diverse country the nation’s chief executive will lead.”

Particularly in terms of racial diversity, Iowa and New Hampshire are not reflective of the nation at large. Nor are they populous enough to warrant an outsized impact on the process.

Prior to the DNC meeting, President Joe Biden sent a letter urging a change to the schedule and recommending that South Carolina be the first state to hold a Democratic primary.

Biden likely owes his presidency to voters in South Carolina, who revived his 2020 campaign following his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. But regardless of his motivations, the situation calls for an overdue examination of the nation’s nominating process.

Rather than having hopeful candidates spending weeks or months pandering for votes in the country’s 31st and 43rd most populous states, the political parties should institute regional primaries that have, say, all Western states voting on the same day.

This also was an idea promoted by Wyman before she left office to join the Biden administration. If Washington, Oregon, California and regional neighbors hold primaries on the same day, candidates can spend two or three weeks touring the West and addressing issues unique to our area. Then they can move on to the Midwest and focus on topics of primacy to those voters.

The region that is earliest on the calendar can be rotated each presidential cycle.

None of that would solve the biggest eccentricity in Washington’s presidential primary. Because voters here do not register by party preference, they are required to confirm their party preference when voting in the presidential primary. Doing away with that would anger only the political parties.

Of course, the good people of Iowa will balk at any attempt to alter the nominating calendar. But the current system is harmful to the rest of the nation, and not in abstract ways. As The Washington Post writes: “Candidates pander to them, and Americans pay the price — for instance, with politically untouchable subsidies for corn ethanol and home heating oil.”

Following a contentious and stressful midterm election, it might seem too early to talk about the 2024 presidential race. But it’s never a bad time to improve America’s election process.