John Cole writes,

I am of the opinion that the primary process is broken. How do we fix it?

While I’m not sure that the primary system is broken or what precisely John finds objectionable with the status quo, I nonetheless venture the following reform:

A two-round national primary would be my suggestion. All comers get to run in the initial race in say, March. A run-off would be held in May.

This would have some significant benefits:

1. Eliminating the hugely inflated power of Iowa and New Hampshire and especially the ridiculous emphasis on “retail politics” in those states, wherein voters expect to have their butts kissed–several times–by a candidate before voting for them.

2. As a corollary to the above, empowering states who now hold their primaries later in the cycle. California, whose electoral votes are about a quarter of what’s needed to win the election, is usually irrelevant to the process.

3. Eliminating the “wasting my vote” mentality, wherein voters in early states feel they have to chose a candidate who can win. On the first ballot, partisans would feel free to vote their conscience, since they’d get a second bite at the apple if their candidate gets eliminated.

The costs should be negligible or non-existent, since there is usually a need for a run-off election for a handful of candidates down the ballot anyway.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott Harris says:

    I’ve been thinking about this issue for several years. Here is my proposed solution.

    Step 1) After each presidential election, randomly draw 2 state names from a hat. These two states will have a 3rd week of February primary during the next midterm election and the next Presidential election.

    Step 2) Number the remaining states from 1 to 48 by population. Divide the states into 4 groups. (Add Washington DC population to the population of Maryland and rerank accordingly)

    Group A – States 1,8,12,16,23,24,31,32,39,40,47,48

    Group B – States 2,7,11,15,18,21,22,29,30,37,38,45,46

    Group C – States 3,6,10,14,19,20,27,28,35,36,43,44

    Group D – States 4,5,9,13,17,18,25,26,33,34,41,42

    Divided this way, each group should be relatively close in population.

    3) Primaries for all but the first two states will be held during the months of March, April, May, and June. By lottery, choose which group gets which month.

    4) Since each group has twelve states in it, and further divide the states in each group into 4 subgroups. Each subgroup of 3 states would hold their primaries during susequent weeks. (e.g. Subgroup A1 on 1st Tuesday of the month, A2 on second Tuesday, etc.)

    After the four year cycle ends, the two states that enjoyed the February primary would be barred from the February primary for at least 96 years. In this way each state would enjoy the February primary position once and only once every 100 years. Also, each subsequent month, a roughly equal portion of the population would get to vote, and the states would be a mixture of demographics, region, and population. That way, the candidates could not tune their message to just one portion of the population.

    Suppose this happened in 2004 using the Year 2000 Census:

    Using the Lottery method I explained to schedule the 2004 election, the primaries would be as follows (electoral votes in parenthesis):

    February 17, 2004
    Rhode Island (4)
    Delaware (3)

    February States Total Population – 1,831,919
    February Electoral College Votes – 7

    March 2, 2004
    California (55)
    Vermont (3)
    Wyoming (3)

    March 9, 2004
    Michigan (17)
    Idaho (4)
    Maine (4)

    March 16, 2004
    Virginia (13)
    Mississippi (6)
    Kansas (6)

    March 23, 2004
    Maryland (10)
    District of Columbia (3)
    Alabama (9)
    Colorado (9)

    March States Total Population – 74,710,074
    March Electoral College Votes – 142

    April 5, 2004
    Indiana (11)
    Wisconsin (10)
    Arizona (10)

    April 12, 2004
    New York (31)
    Montana (3)
    South Dakota (3)

    April 19, 2004
    Pennsylvania (21)
    Nevada (5)
    New Mexico (5)

    April 26, 2004
    Georgia (15)
    Oklahoma (7)
    Oregon (7)

    April States Total Population – 68,365,151
    April Electoral College Votes – 128

    May 2, 2004
    North Carolina (15)
    Connecticutt (7)
    Iowa (7)

    May 9, 2004
    Washington (11)
    Minnesota (10)
    Louisianna (9)

    May 16, 2004
    Texas (34)
    North Dakota (3)
    Alaska (3)

    May 23, 2004
    Ohio (20)
    West Virginia (5)
    Nebraska (5)

    May States Total Population – 66,657,477
    May Electoral College Votes – 129

    June 1 Memorial Day Break.

    June 8, 2004
    Illinois (21)
    Arkansas (6)
    Utah (5)

    June 15, 2004
    New Jersey (15)
    Kentucky (8)
    South Carolina (8)

    June 22, 2004
    Massachusetts (12)
    Tennessee (11)
    Missouri (11)

    June 29, 2004
    Florida (27)
    New Hampshire (4)
    Hawaii (4)

    June States Total Population – 69,857,285
    June Electoral College Votes – 132

    I think that although this schedule might be hard on candidates, it would be better for the voting public.

  2. Scott Harris says:

    Another option is to divide the country into six regions and hold primaries every two weeks over a period of ten weeks.

    Northeast Region:
    ME, NH, VT, MA, RI, CT, NY, NJ, DE
    Total Electoral Votes = 83

    Atlantic Region:
    PA, OH, WV, MD, DC, VA, KY, NC
    Total Electoral Votes = 95

    Southeast Region:
    Fl, GA, AL, MS, LA, AR, TN, SC
    Total Electoral Votes = 91

    Midwest Region:
    MI, IN, WI, IL, MN, IA, MO
    Total Electoral Votes = 87

    Western Region:
    ND, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, MT, WY, CO, NM, UT, AZ
    Total Electoral Votes = 93

    Pacific Region:
    ID, NV, WA, OR, CA, AK, HA
    Total Electoral Votes = 89

    Rotate the order each region gets to vote starting on the 3rd Tuesday of February, 1st & 3rd Tuesdays of March & April and 1st Tuesday of May.

    This would limit travelling costs for candidates and allow them to focus their messages to fit each specific region.

  3. harm d. says:

    mr. harris, can i just make the quasi-cheeky remark that you seem to have invested large (perhaps inordinately so) amounts of time into this?

    perhaps you should compile & submit it to “proper authorities…” you never know what might happen.

  4. Bill Kearney says:

    If people are too lazy to get off their ass and participate in the existing process why should we believe it’s worth wasting money to invent yet another process?

    Honestly, nothing cuts short some tongue wagging idiot, going on about the elections, like confronting them on their actual election participation. More often than not, they haven’t even bothered to vote. As someone who DOES vote I’m pretty unsympathetic to their bleatings.

    The process exists and, with all it’s issues, has worked quite well for two centuries. If that’s not enough time for people to learn then perhaps they’re hopeless.