SALT LAKE CITY -- Before most major elections, Americans belonging to various political parties will gather to choose a candidate to represent their interests. Since the early 1970s, the standard for that selection process has been primary elections. It's a standard that a growing number of Americans want to see changed.
The great debate over the primary system is mostly about sharing influence. New Hampshire has traditionally held the first primary election for a presidential race, and Iowa the first caucus, which is something opponents to the current system argue gives these states a disproportionate amount of influence.
These states, the argument goes, boost the candidates they like and eliminate some they do not like before most Americans have even started paying attention to presidential campaigning. What's worse, opponents argue, these states tend to be less diverse than much of the rest of the country, favoring niche candidates and eliminating moderates that are too poor to survive until larger, more diverse states hold their primaries.
Filtering the field in this way gives New Hampshire and Iowa, representing roughly 1 percent of the American population, influence that has not gone unnoticed by other states. Florida and Michigan are only two of several states that have recently ignored party leaders to move their primary elections to earlier dates. Clamoring for more input in the election process, each state hopes that increasing its influence in the election process will yield more favorable policies from Washington.
New Hampshire and Iowa have responded by gradually moving elections once held March 6 to as early as Jan. 3 in 2012. Extending the campaign season through political positioning, opponents argue, has also increased the likelihood that special interest dollars will dictate the eventual winners.
Proponents of the primary system, meanwhile, disagree with claims that states with earlier primary elections have disproportionate influence. Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama won in New Hampshire, they point out, and John McCain came in fourth place in Iowa in 2008. Instead, they suggest that small states like Iowa and New Hampshire create a better incubation lab for novice hopefuls.
Of 95 Republicans that announced candidacy for president according to votesmart.org, only 15 have paid the $1,000 fee to have their name listed on the ballot in New Hampshire. Before the primaries have even begun, the majority of 'novice hopefuls' in the race have been virtually eliminated.
Despite the objections, 2012 candidate Newt Gingrich supports the primary system. During a visit to the National Constitution Center in 2008, the Center reported that Gingrich stated, "I think the primary system, broadly speaking, works. It allows candidates to emerge. It allows the voters over time to measure and judge people."
He continued, "I think it is very important that it be a multi-month process. The current process both allows unusual candidates without great resources to emerge in Iowa and New Hampshire and, at the same time, it gives enough time to test everyone extensively."
In 2012, Utah will hold the last primary election a full two weeks after the other 49 states have made their decisions. It will be almost six months after Iowa and New Hampshire have had their say.
Sometimes having the last word isn't all it is made out to be.
Though Americans benefit from the opportunity to measure and test candidates over time, as Gingrich suggests, the primary system is unable to provide equal value to votes placed over several months. By the time Utahns head to the polls in late June, the republican presidential candidate may already be a sure pick.
When primary elections can be administered more evenly, like those to select governors and congressional candidates, they are prime examples of democracy at work. The trouble lies in the presidential primaries where time slots allocated by central party leaders allow some voices to be heard with much greater volume than the rest.
Politicians and scholars have suggested several alternatives to the primary system, including rotating election dates, allotting time slots by state size or lottery, or even non-partisan primaries that would potentially allow two candidates from the same party to face off in the general election.
Any of these alternatives would be better for Utah.
Dallin Kimble is a graduate student of public administration at Arizona State University. He lives with his family in the Mesa, Ariz., area.