October 19, 2011

The quadrennial presidential primary “scheduling farce” is in full swing. Once again, the New Hampshire secretary of state is threatening to move his state’s primary to early December, while Iowa has announced it will hold its caucuses Jan. 3. States such as Florida, South Carolina and Nevada have either moved their primaries or threaten to do so.

Ironically, while these states claim they are doing this to increase their role in the nominating process, holding primaries in January violates the Republican National Committee’s rules — agreed upon by representatives from every state — and threatens to decrease the relevance of voters in those states.

When I became chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005, I quickly learned that, while the party’s voting members and the chairman can control the rules for a nominating contest, we have no control over state officials and legislatures. There has long been criticism of the primary calendar; Iowa and New Hampshire are seen as having an unfair impact on the nominating process. Therefore when the DNC adopted changes for the 2008 primary contest, the goal was to better reflect the party’s rich racial, regional and economic diversity earlier in the process.

Under the new rules, Iowa and New Hampshire maintained their coveted “first in the nation” status, and Nevada and South Carolina were added to the “pre-window” — the period before the nominating calendar officially began in February. Any state that moved its contest to a date prior to the first Tuesday in February would be stripped of 100 percent of its delegates. Any candidate who participated in a primary or caucus, or campaigned outside the framework, would not be awarded any delegates from that state. States that moved their primary dates back were rewarded with additional delegates.

Much as in the chaos currently unfolding, the Florida and Michigan legislatures voted to move their 2008 primaries to January, which prompted New Hampshire to move its primary to Jan. 8 and Iowa to hold its caucuses on Jan. 3. Because Florida and Michigan had violated the DNC rules, they lost all their delegates; in effect, the legislatures of those two states chose to strip their voters of meaningful participation in the selection of the Democratic nominee for president.

It’s not surprising that the states jockey for position, wanting to get a piece of the action. For years they have watched as Iowa and New Hampshire garnered national media attention, and as campaigns spent money in their states. Political leaders are motivated to push for earlier primaries to gain political favor and recognition in the state and with the winning campaign.

But states do not have the legal right to change the national party’s rules. If the national parties are willing to use their power to protect the integrity of the process, they can force states into compliance. The Republican Party seems unwilling to do so. Its first mistake happened months ago, when it decided that states that move their primaries would lose 50 percent, rather than 100 percent, of their delegates. Under the current system, for example, even if Florida violates the rules and loses half its 198 delegates, it would still have more than New Hampshire (23) and Iowa (28) combined. As a candidate, if you think you can win Florida, there is no reason not to encourage the state to move its date.

However, candidates pay a price when primaries get moved up. Difficult decisions about campaign strategy and allocation of resources are based largely on the primary calendar set by the national parties. This is particularly important for lesser-known, or lesser-financed, candidates.

As the RNC considers its options, it should remember that while states are under no obligation to pay for the nominating contests set by the national parties, the parties are under no obligation to recognize the results from states that have violated the rules. To preserve the agreed-upon system in this cycle, the RNC must show it is prepared to enforce the rules, and to consider additional sanctions if necessary.

The balance of power in the nominating process has been skewed by the states’ unwillingness to respect the national parties and by the unwillingness of the parties to do much about it. Ultimately, the biggest victims of this quadrennial farce are the voters.

However, if New Hampshire makes good on its threat to move its primary to December 2011, potentially prompting Iowa to also move into December to maintain its position as the first contest, the whole system could implode — which may be the best outcome of all. For a very small window, both national parties would have the political cover to reenvision the rules for a fair, balanced nominating process.

The writer, governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003, was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009.