The scramble among states to move up their presidential primaries next year has renewed calls from a number of the nation's chief election officers to end the helter-skelter and move to a slower nominating process, such as by staging four regional primaries.
The National Association of Secretaries of State
has dusted off its proposal to divide states into regions - the East, South, Midwest and West - and hold four primaries, each a month apart, between March and June. All states in a region would schedule their primaries on the same day. The order of the contests would rotate every presidential election year.
New Hampshire and Iowa would retain their positions as the first two states to choose a presidential nominee.
After nearly a decade of promoting the regional primary plan, secretaries of state at a convention Feb. 9 in Washington, D.C., said that, regardless of how it's done, they're interested in convincing the national Republican and Democratic parties to put the brakes on the nominating process.
Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh (R) called for a meeting between state officials and leaders of both national parties this spring, probably not in time to affect the 2008 race but still in time for party officials to adopt changes during next year's presidential nominating conventions.
National parties have some rules over when states hold their primaries, but the final say comes down to state lawmakers.
For now, Iowa and New Hampshire are defiantly clinging to their early contests. The Iowa caucuses are slated for Jan. 14 and New Hampshire's primary is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 22. But states with later primary election dates are threatening to push up their primaries to get in on the presidential nomination action in 2008.
Lawmakers in vote-rich states such as California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey are considering jumping ahead and cramming their primaries on a single day on Feb. 5, the earliest date sanctioned by Democratic Party rules. If so, as many as 22 states could hold a primary election on the same day. Voters in at least four states already would have chosen a nominee, including Nevada and South Carolina. The whole political nominating process could be over in as little as three weeks - nine months before the general election.
"I don't know if it's too late for 2008, but right now we have total chaos," said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin (D), a lead proponent of regional contests.
He said a front-loaded primary schedule would mean less face-to-face interaction between candidates and voters after the early contests in sparsely populated New Hampshire and Iowa. Candidates would have to rely on expensive TV ads and mass-marketing tools to simultaneously compete in some of the nation's biggest media markets.
Galvin, who is heading up the regional primary effort along with Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), revived the idea in Washington, D.C., at the national group's winter meeting. In 39 states, secretaries of state oversee elections.
The group has been promoting the idea of rotating regional primaries since 1999, but the primary calendar has become more and more front-loaded since the idea was first unveiled.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) said she has mixed feelings about moves by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Democratic legislative leaders to advance her state's primary to Feb. 5 from early June. The state's media markets are so expensive that candidates might bypass the Golden State anyway, she said.
On the other hand, she said California voters are frustrated that the only role they now play in the presidential nomination process is that of "cash registers."
Efforts to impose regional primaries have fizzled in the past.
Western states tried to organize a regional contest in 2000, but only three states joined and George W. Bush had secured the Republican nomination before the primary.
In 1988, Democratic leaders in the South organized the first "Super Tuesday" contest to promote their region's interests. The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. and then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee split the nine states in the contest, while then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis earned the Democratic nomination.