NOW THAT the presidential primary system has become undeniably undemocratic, it's time to develop a new process to select candidates for the White House. Both parties should look to the National Basketball Association for inspiration.
Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson all backed out of the Michigan primary last week. How could these candidates dare to ignore such an important part of the Democratic Party? Because Michigan had the temerity to defy the Democratic National Committee and schedule its primary for Jan. 15.
The DNC has decreed that only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may hold contests before Feb. 5. New Hampshire has held primaries since 1916 but gained prominence for its first-in-the-nation contest in 1952. A 1977 state law requires New Hampshire to hold its primary before any other states. Iowa has held influential caucus contests since 1972. South Carolina and Nevada established their early-bird status in recent years.
In defiance of the DNC, Michigan and Florida have both scheduled early primaries. Now the DNC is threatening to disenfranchise both states. If they go ahead with their early contests, they will not be allowed to send any delegates to the national convention. Meanwhile, the Republican Party plans to take away half of Wyoming's delegates as punishment for scheduling a Jan. 5 contest.
The Democrats have decided that disenfranchisement of its voters in Michigan and Florida - two of the biggest, most diverse, and tightly contested states in the nation - is the only way to take control of a nomination process gone awry.
For years, states have rushed to push their primaries and caucuses earlier in the year. This "frontloading" of contests means that both parties could pick their nominees by early March - before most voters have had a chance to assess the candidates. That's not only unfair; it's also unwise. Selecting a president requires some care. Rushing the process makes no sense.
New Hampshire and Iowa have long claimed that their Athenian virtue should give them priority over other states. Both states are small and cohesive enough that candidates can do face-to-face campaigning. Voters get to know the candidates intimately, the argument goes, and make better choices for the rest of us. Many voters brag about having all the candidates in their homes many times.
But no state has a monopoly on virtue of any kind. As earnest as Iowans and New Hampshirites may be, they are no better than voters from Rhode Island or Nevada, Vermont or California, Florida or Washington.
The presidential nomination process should respect all kinds of states - small and large, compact and sprawling, diverse and homogenous. States with different characteristics would alternate with each other in the nomination process.
No state deserves to determine the range of choices for everyone else, year after year. It's not fair that Iowa and New Hampshire always get to eliminate a raft of candidates before bigger and more diverse states have their say.
The parties might use a variation of the NBA draft to schedule primaries and caucuses. The NBA randomly selects one of the 14 teams that do not make the playoffs to the first 14 picks. (The number of ping-pong balls in the machine is weighted to account for the teams' records.) The 16 playoff teams then make their draft selections in the reverse order of their records.
To make a primary/caucus schedule on the NBA model, the Democrats and GOP should pick a state from the pool of the 17 smallest states to go first. Then, states from the pools of the 17 biggest and the 17 middle states should alternate chances to pick dates. The parties could move through the three-pool rotation until the schedule is complete.
You could debate whether the first contest should take place in a small state. New Hampshirites probably have a point when they rhapsodize about the benefits of face-to-fare politics. But maybe in exchange for getting the first "draft" pick, states from the other pools each should get two calendar dates rather than one. Or maybe the order of the pools should change each election cycle. Such details could be hashed out.
The nomination calendar could stretch from 16 to 20 weeks, beginning in late February or early March. Some states might schedule events on Saturdays, while others could stick with the standard Tuesday contests. Some weeks would have only one contest, but others would have five or more contests.
States would have the opportunity to team with nearby states to make a Super Tuesday primary. After creating a draft of the calendar, states would have a set period - say, three months - to get neighboring states to join them. If New Hampshire gets the first pick, it could either hold its own primary or create a super-primary with neighboring states like Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Some states would prefer to keep the spotlight to themselves, while others would like the greater heft of the group.
Using an NBA-style lottery to rotate states would not only provide a balanced sequence of states by population, but also regional location, economic diversity, ethnic diversity, urban/suburban/rural balance, and so on.
We could start the process with intimate retail campaigning, but also give bigger states a chance to express their will when it still matters. The greatest benefit would be to spread out the selection process, so that all states have a chance to have a say in selecting party nominees.
The ugly battles over scheduling the Michigan and Florida primaries should be the final indictment of the current system, which is arbitrary, chaotic, and unfair.
Ultimately, the Michigan and Florida controversies will get solved. It's unthinkable that Democrats would alienate such important states by barring them from the convention.
But whatever happens in 2008, we need a better way to organize our presidential nomination contests. A system of allowing states to select dates like draft picks, NBA-style, is the way to go.
Charles Euchner, a New Haven writer, was executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston from 2000 to 2004.