CAMBRIDGE , Mass. - What if the presidential primary worked more like a lottery with all the states having a chance at the ultimate prize of voting first in the nominating schedule, ending the coveted tradition of New Hampshire and Iowa leading the pack?
That's a simplified version of one of several ideas being considered by top party and state officials, who aim to prevent a repeat of states' helter-skelter scramble for early presidential primary dates in 2008.
While voters in Indiana and North Carolina go to the polls today (May 6) to help Democrats pick Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as their nominee and Republicans rally behind John McCain, party insiders and state election officials are in informal talks to improve the presidential nominating contests for 2012 and beyond.
"Following the frenzied 2008 primary and caucus schedule that began just a few days into the new year, election officials have a strong interest in curbing the impacts of frontloading and restoring order to the process," said Todd Rokita (R), Indiana secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) during a bipartisan gathering at Harvard University here April 29 that brought together party and state leaders to discuss the presidential primary process.
While all sides agreed that this year's historic run for the White House has energized voters, as evidenced by the record voter registration and primary turnout in many states, many are concerned that this cycle's very early start was unfair to candidates and some voters.
Candidates were forced to start campaigning at Thanksgiving, giving an unfair advantage to highly funded candidates with name recognition, critics say.
And for some voters, their ballots may not count. States like Florida and Michigan were in such a mad dash to be first that they broke party rules and leapfrogged ahead - throwing into question whether their results will count and whether all their delegates can attend the nominating conventions this summer. The parties and states are still working on a compromise.
"It is time to stop the frontloading of the presidential nominating calendar so that states are not pitted against each other in a quadrennial attempt to land a prized early spot in the sequence of voting," said Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), co-chair of the NASS subcommittee on presidential primaries, who attended the conference.
For nearly a decade, NASS has been pushing its plan to overhaul the way presidential nominees are selected. Under its proposal, states would be divided into regions - the East, South, Midwest and West - and each of those regions would hold primaries, a month apart, between March and June. New Hampshire and Iowa would still be allowed to go first.
NASS's push to change the system stalled until the past year when 28 states rushed to either move up their primaries or caucuses or decided to have one after not holding one in 2004. Voters in 24 states expressed their presidential preferences on Feb. 5, becoming essentially a national primary.
"It's about equity," said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic rules committee and professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. This year, the states that went very early and very late are getting all the attention. "How do we figure out how to make all states important?" she said.
But changing the current process won't be easy. If the parties want to revamp the presidential primary system for 2012, the Republican National Committee (RNC) requires that GOP delegates approve the changes during the Republican convention Sept. 1- 4 in Minneapolis. Democratic Party rules allow members to act long after their convention in Denver Aug. 25-28.
States are another wild card. Legislatures would have to incorporate into state law any system that the national parties adopt. State and local governments are responsible for funding and running presidential primaries, which are not necessarily held on the same dates as state primaries. For many state lawmakers, "their own primary is more important than the presidential primary," Ron Thornburgh (R), Kansas secretary of state, said. Every state will ask, "What's best for me?" he said.
But no one is completely ruling out possible changes for the next presidential cycle.
A variation of the NASS plan called the "Ohio plan" is moving forward after an important RNC panel approved it. The plan faces further party review before it could go to the convention in September.
The proposal would continue to give Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada the opening shots, but the country's smallest states would always come first after that. Three groups of remaining larger states would vote later on a rotating basis. The Ohio plan already has drawn fire from larger states such as California and Michigan because the approach would guarantee they always go last.
U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) called the Ohio plan "dead on arrival for Democrats" and is instead pushing his own "Michigan plan" that dethrones Iowa and New Hampshire as kingmakers. His proposed randomly drawn "lottery" would give every state the chance to be part of the first of six voting groups that go first in primaries spread between March and June.
"It's not about Michigan going first," Debbie Dingell, vice chairman of the General Motors Foundation and Democratic National Committee (DNC) member, told the gathering here. "It's about every state having the opportunity to have the kind of attention that those two small states have," she said, referring to Iowa and New Hampshire.
Also being circulated are the "Delaware plan" that establishes a "pod" system based on the population of each state and the "Texas plan" that divides the country into four groups based on a balance of convention delegates, electoral votes and the proportion of "red" and "blue" states.
Of the various plans, the NASS rotating regional plan has received the most formal support, earning endorsements from the National Governors Association, the National Association of Lieutenant Governors, the Council of State Governments and a 2005 blue-ribbon panel, the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Several governors told Stateline.org earlier this year that they regarded this election's chaotic rush for early spots on the presidential primary calendar as a mess to be avoided in 2012 - but were quite happy with how the 2008 schedule worked for them (Click here for the story and to access the audio of the governors' comments).
Some political consultants predict that the push for reworking the primary process will be driven by the party that is defeated this fall. "If the Democrats lose the White House, you'll see the most fundamental, sweeping changes of the rules since the 1970s," predicted Tad Devine, a Democratic campaign consultant. If McCain loses, some may argue that he became the front-runner too early and that the selection process ended too soon for the GOP.
On the other hand, whoever wins the presidency may not want to tinker with the system that worked for them, said James Roosevelt Jr., co-chair of the DNC's rules and bylaws committee.
Despite the various proposals, many state party and state election officials do agree on one thing: They don't want Congress getting into the act. Competing legislation has been introduced on Capitol Hill that would make the NASS and Michigan plans law. "Anytime you have Congress sniffing around your door, pretty soon, they'll be inside eating your lunch," said David Norcross, chairman of the RNC's standing committee on rules.