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There Is Only One Way to Fix Our Broken Presidential Primary

What would the founders have done if they’d known we were going to inflict this terrible system upon ourselves?

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Every four years, many Americans look at the presidential primary system and ask: Is this really the best way to choose a nominee? It’s hard to say yes. Iowa and New Hampshire unfairly monopolize the candidates’ time, energy, and resources for at least a year. Voters elsewhere must then wait to choose from a field that has been narrowed by voters from two small, unrepresentative states that hold roughly 2 percent of the U.S. population. The lengthy process rewards campaigns that can call upon deep pockets and favorable media coverage.

It’s unsurprising that calls for reform emerge, like clockwork, every four years. Sometimes these expressions of discontent result in substantial changes: the steady abolition of caucuses, the defanging of superdelegates, the moving of states like Nevada and South Carolina to the front of the line so as to diversify the early-state gauntlet. These intermittent changes have fallen far short of a systemic overhaul. If anything, they might have placed the much-needed deeper structural reforms to the primary process further out of reach.

Numerous proposals to amend the primary process have been authored, all of which seek to make this broken system more democratically viable. Some of these ideas, such as holding a national primary day or implementing ranked-choice voting, may have the ring of familiarity. However, the best solution to the problem might be one that doesn’t solve it directly but at least makes it more solvable: a constitutional amendment that gives Congress the power to control certain aspects of the presidential primary process.

That power currently resides in hundreds of power centers across the country. The two political parties’ national committees have broad influence over the shape and structure of their respective primary processes. State parties have significant discretion about the form those contests will take. State legislatures and power brokers decide which races are held first and whose voters get to wield the most influence over the process. The result is a jumbled patchwork of competing interests instead of a cohesive vision for how presidential candidates should be chosen.

An amendment would also remedy one of the Constitution’s greatest flaws: the failure to account for the creation of political parties. The framers of the Constitution viewed factional politics as something to be avoided in a virtuous democracy instead of an inevitable component of it. As a result, they failed to account for the structural role that parties would play in American democracy. The founding generation quickly realized its error: It ratified the Twelfth Amendment in 1801 after the original method elected a president and vice president who were political foes in 1796, then deadlocked in 1800 over the possibility it would happen again.

Today, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of reform is sheer inertia. In its modern form, the primary process only dates back to the 1970s. After the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, both parties set out to reform their methods for choosing presidential nominees. The solution they hit on was to stage a staggered set of elections throughout the spring of an election year with no overarching logic to shape the process. Iowa and New Hampshire went first in 2020 not by some sort of divine mandate but because they happened to be chosen to go first way back in 1972.

By now, the process has become so deeply ingrained in American political life that changing it seems unthinkable. It took a cataclysmic set of failures by the Iowa Democratic Party earlier this year for the Democrats’ party elders to openly discuss the possibility of scrapping the once-sacrosanct Iowa caucus in favor of a primary or even stripping it of its first-in-the-nation status altogether. Iowa Republicans, for their part, already made incremental fixes after their own meltdown in 2012, in which Rick Santorum was belatedly declared the winner 16 days after Mitt Romney had claimed victory.

Iowa’s woes also highlight another problem for attempts at systemic change: the sheer number of choke points that could hinder sweeping reforms to the process. Those who are best positioned to implement reforms often have the least incentive to do so. In advance of the 2008 primaries, for example, the Democratic and Republican parties battled back efforts by some states to move up their contests before Iowa and New Hampshire. The Democratic National Committee responded by stripping two such insolently adventurous states, Florida and Michigan, of their convention delegates. They eventually regained their delegates, however, through the intervention of powerful friends—in this case, then-candidate Hillary Clinton.

Piecemeal reforms also require balancing a thicket of competing interests. Consider one of the most popular proposals: abandoning the staggered schedule for a national primary day. “This idea is pretty self-explanatory: Every state holds its nominating contest—mostly primaries, perhaps a few caucuses sprinkled in—on the same night, and the voters wake up the next morning knowing who their party’s nominee is,” Vox’s Cameron Peters wrote last month. “After all, we elect a president all at once, not state by state over a period of months, so why not choose our candidates the same way?” A Monmouth University survey last month found that 58 percent of Democrats favor holding all of the primary contests on a single day.

The virtues of a national primary day are fairly clear. Staggered primaries allocate too much power to early states, giving some Americans far more influence in choosing a candidate than others. Since no state perfectly mirrors the national electorate, that influence may not choose the most suitable candidate for November. In states where early and absentee voters can cast ballots, their votes might be effectively nullified if a candidate chooses to drop out of the race. Such a fate befell thousands of supporters of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar this week, after the two candidates left the race and endorsed Biden.

Abandoning the current multimonth slog would give voters across the country an equal say in choosing their party’s nominee. It would also resolve growing concerns that the early states aren’t representative enough of the wider electorate. At the same time, such a move could undermine the process in other ways. A national primary day risks bolstering well-known and well-funded candidates, making it hard for those with a lower national profile to emerge as potential contenders. It may also raise the likelihood of a contested convention, by making it harder to narrow the field of high-profile candidates.

Congress would be better positioned to weigh these interests than those with a direct stake in the matter. Setting up a new calendar under the current system would require the assent of every state, and some will jealously guard their power and influence. New Hampshire law, for example, requires that state’s primary to be held at least seven days before any other state primary. Iowa leaders mounted a bipartisan defense of their preeminent status last month after the Democratic caucus debacle, eager to preserve their traditional role in American politics.

Congress’s discretion shouldn’t be unlimited, of course. The amendment could set basic ground rules for when and how the primaries would be held, then allow lawmakers to fill in the details about which states go when and whether they all should go first. It may well be impossible to create a system that satisfies everyone and caters to all interests. But it should be desirable to work toward a system that doesn’t just benefit those who win it.