Mike Jacobs: Regional primaries make sense

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The primary is a good idea for a couple of reasons. It replaces a cumbersome caucus system and it gives Minnesotans bragging rights. Otherwise, and for many other reasons, it is a flawed notion.

In the first place, don’t stay up waiting for results. There won’t be any for a while. This is early voting. The actual primary election isn’t until March 3. That’s six weeks and most of the winter away. By that time some – maybe most – of the Democrats running for president will have been damaged and some driven out of the race altogether. Minnesotans will have voted for candidates who are out of the race by the time the votes are counted. Their early votes will be meaningless.

In this case, the craziness isn’t limited to Democrats. Republicans have only one candidate. Party officials insisted that they would decide what names would be on the ballot. There’s only one, Donald Trump, which doesn’t make for much of an election. Then there’s the matter of an impeachment trial. Some minds might be changed, one way or another, both about what primary to vote in and what candidate to vote for. Whatever the outcome, the impeachment trial may be history before the Minnesota’s primary votes are counted.

The primary will be a genuinely partisan affair. Every voter will have to ask for a party ballot. Voters’ choices are supposed to be secret, but party affiliation may become public knowledge, creating the opportunity – perhaps the inevitability – that individuals will inadvertently become targets in partisan campaigns, even if they fervently wished to make a quiet, private choice.

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Early voting might make sense for decided voters and vote counters, but it diminishes the sense of community that comes with actually going to the polls to vote. Going to a polling place to vote with your neighbors emphasizes shared responsibility. A six-week window lessens the urgency. It makes voting something for individuals to “get around to” rather than communities to share.

This is all by way of introduction, though. The big problem has little to do with Minnesota’s new primary election law. The big problem is the whacky way that we Americans choose presidential candidates.

I’m willing to give Minnesota a point or two for challenging Iowa’s position as the first state to matter, although Iowa’s position is probably secure; but there’s a better way to challenge Iowa’s pre-eminence. The better way is to gang up on Iowa by holding a regional primary.

A regional primary involving Minnesota and North Dakota and South Dakota would broaden the event’s appeal – and potentially bring candidates to seek votes here. Likely Fargo and Sioux Falls would join Des Moines as destinations.

This idea has been advanced in the past, and a version of it has been adopted in the South, giving that region a larger role in presidential politics. The states of the Upper Midwest don’t have that kind of presence. Scheduling primary elections in several adjacent states on the same day would raise the region’s profile.

Of course, we’d have to settle on the boundaries of the region. It’s tempting to suggest surrounding Iowa, by inviting other Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and perhaps Nebraska to the primary. An alternative would be to hold a Great Plains primary, involving North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. The total number of voters would be fewer, but such a primary would bring attention to the region, perhaps helping to dispel the notion that this is “fly-over country.” At the least, it would demonstrate that not every person in the plains shares the same political philosophy.

The goal is not to force Iowans to give up their pride of place. Iowans can continue with their cumbersome caucus system. For the rest of the region, and the nation, the goal should be to create a more sensible way to choose candidates, by spreading the responsibility across more states and to more voters.

New Hampshire isn’t mentioned here, because New Hampshire earned its place in the usual American way, by holding an election. New Hampshire residents actually go to the polls and state their choice, rather than crowding into gymnasium corners to take part in caucuses.

Iowa and New Hampshire can retain their place as starters; for the other states, a series of regional primaries would let people into the process of picking presidential candidates, and they’d spread the responsibility to parts of the country that are now overlooked. That was the motive behind the Minnesota primary, and the motive is the right one, even if the process is flawed.

That can be fixed by holding a series of regional primaries that would streamline the process of picking a president at the same time that it spreads the franchise.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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