Advancing a Free Society

Choose a President, Play the Lottery

Monday, March 7, 2011

Presidential elections take familiar paths. Unannounced candidates act coy; they do a poor job of disguising their intent.

Ditto the nation’s states, which also repeat patterns. Each cycle brings with it at least one electorate trying to cut – if not to the front of the line, at least close enough to the front to play the role of kingmaker. California tried this in 2008. This time around, Florida is making life uncomfortable for the Republican powers-that-be, who’d like to keep the Sunshine State in check and leave February 2012 off limits to all states with the exception of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Let’s give a polite golf clap to the folks who are trying to slow down the nominating process. Consider the change over the last decade. By Feb. 8, 2000, only three states – Iowa, New Hampshire and Delaware – had held GOP presidential contests. Four years later, 11 states held Democratic primaries or caucuses by Feb. 7. For 2008, nearly two-fifth of the nation's states voted on or before Feb. 5. Yes, the Democrats’ drama played out longer than expected, with Barack Obama unable to put away Hillary Clinton until June of that year. But you might agree that the front-loaded concept is sort of like speed-dating: it doesn’t take much time. Then again, you may not like the results.

Is there a better way to run the primaries? A couple of years ago, I floated this idea in a Weekly Standard column: like the National Basketball Association, enter the 50 states and the District Columbia in a lottery, a year before the election, to decide who goes when.

Here's how the plan plays out:

Rule One: No presidential primaries or caucuses until the first Monday in February. Let the public have a peaceful January breaking resolutions and watching football.

Rule Two: Start the selection process with the same first four states as in 2008. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina all are relatively small states. And they reflect four regions of the country with distinctly different economies and cultures. That makes for a level playing field.

Rule Three: Once those four states vote, the game changes. From here on, primaries are held among seven states, every Tuesday, for the following six weeks. That mix would include one "mega" state* with at least 18 electoral votes, three mid-size states with a minimum of 10 electoral votes, three smaller states worth four to nine electoral votes, plus one small state with three electoral votes (on the seventh Tuesday, one "mega" state, two mid-sized states and one small state would vote).

Back when I first cooked up this scheme, I conducted a lottery­­­ – with the aid of four baseball caps and one shredded piece of paper. Here's what I came up with, adusting to the 2012 cycle:

Feb. 6, Iowa

Feb. 11, Nevada

Feb. 14, New Hampshire

Feb. 21, South Carolina

Feb. 28, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oregon, Alaska

March 6, Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, North Dakota

March 13, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, South Dakota

March 20, Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, District of Columbia

March 27, Texas, New Jersey, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming

April 3, New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Connecticut, Mississippi, West Virginia, Vermont

April 10, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Delaware, Montana

btw, here’s a 2012 electoral map . . .

Obviously, not every state would be pleased with this outcome. Big egocentric California, for example, for example, would be preceded by roughly two dozen states. Florida would wait enough longer. And that won’t work for an almighty swing state.

But there are ways to address the fairness system. One option would be to prevent the 14 states that voted on the first two "Super Tuesdays" from getting the same early start in the next election. And, just as there's a firewall in the NBA lottery that prevents the team with the worst record from finishing lower than fourth in the draft, this political lottery could guarantee that the seventh-week states would finish no lower than, say, the fourth week in the next election.

There are two major benefits to such a system. First, it would reverse this country's downward spiral toward a national primary that unfairly rewards better-known, better-financed candidates. And, speaking selfishly as a baseball zealot, it could chew up all of February and a good portion of March, thus filling the void until Opening Day.

If you’ve got a better idea, I’m listening . . .

(photo credit: NBANets)