TO BE SURE, Tuesday's presidential primary in Michigan wasn't without consequence; on the Republican side, Mitt Romney kept his campaign alive by getting the win he badly needed. But turnout was low, especially for an early primary in a populous swing state, amid highly competitive races for the Democratic and Republican nominations.
One damper on voter enthusiasm was the fact that both parties are punishing Michigan for violating their rules, which forbid most states to hold primaries before Feb. 5. So Michigan Republicans elected half the number of delegates that they ordinarily would. Democratic voters didn't elect any; that contest was a straw poll pitting Hillary Clinton against "uncommitted." Barack Obama and John Edwards, the other two major Democratic candidates, weren't even on the ballot.
The Michigan race exemplified the train wreck that the primary process has become. By jumping ahead on the calendar, the state ended up shortchanging its own voters. So did South Carolina, which will lose half of its Republican delegation because that primary is Saturday. And so did Florida, which will lose half its Republican delegates and all of its Democratic ones by holding a renegade primary Jan. 29.
Reform is overdue. Last year, dozens of states tried to jostle to the front of the line - or at least sought to catch up with everyone else. Most of these states at least abided by party rules. So this month's contests will be followed on Feb. 5 by a "Super-Duper Tuesday" - in states such as California, New York, and Illinois, as well as Massachusetts - that will be something akin to a de facto national primary. This is not healthy, either. The need to compete everywhere at once helps the candidates with the most money, and not necessarily those with the best ideas.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has proposed a saner model. Iowa and New Hampshire would still go first, but other states would be grouped in a series of four rotating regional primaries. US Senators Amy Klobuchar, Joe Lieberman, and Lamar Alexander have filed a bill to implement that system, but it hasn't yet gone much of anywhere.
Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, who helped develop the system, used to think states could put it in place on their own. Now he's not so sure. He argues that the best opportunity for Congress to pass legislation is while the presidential race remains unsettled. By the beginning of next year, the nation will have a new president who presumably will seek reelection in 2012. And incumbents tend to defend whichever electoral setup got them into office.
But the current arrangements are looking ever more absurd. The nation is well on its way toward a tedious, semi-permanent campaign season that lasts for half or more of every four-year presidential term - and is punctuated by a smattering of early primaries that might or might not even count.