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The Primary Arms Race

Mitt Romney, son of former Michigan governor George Romney, holds court at a Michigan GOP convention in Feb. 2007. (AP)

The chaos continues in the presidential primary calendar, as Michigan lawmakers debate when to hold their contest. Local papers report a bill could pass next week to hold the voting on either Feb. 5 or Jan. 29.

That would be good news for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose father was once governor of Michigan. The younger Romney is popular in Michigan and would benefit from early voting there.

But a move by Michigan could trigger further action by other states, all of whom are seeking influence in the process of picking nominees. The decision by South Carolina Republicans to move their primaries to Jan. 19 is almost certain to mean even earlier voting in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Now, a bipartisan group of senators on Capitol Hill are proposing a way to end the calendar confusion -- at least for the next election.

Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) have introduced legislation that would create a system of regional voting that would take place on the first Tuesdays in March, April, May and June. The nation's states would be divided into four regions, and membership in those regions would rotate every four years.

"Primaries were not intended to be an arms race," Klobuchar said in a statement announcing the legislation. "We seek to give order to this chaotic, messy, and unrepresentative process. This schedule gives power and influence back to the voters in every state."

Under the legislation, which is based on a recommendation first made by the National Association of Secretaries of State in 2000, New Hampshire and Iowa would remain at the front of the process. But other states would no longer have the option to move their voting unilaterally.

The advocates of the legislation say it would ensure that lesser-known candidates have the time to make their case to the voters -- something they argue is not possible when voting is compressed to just a few days in January or February.

They argue it would also inject diversity into a system that is currently dominated by two small, homogeneous states. The regional primary idea was endorsed in September of 2005 by an election reform commission headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker III.

But the proposal has not been embraced by the parties in past years, in part because it strips the state and national parties of control over their own process. In their report, Carter and Baker agree that the process is best left to the states.

But, they add, "If political parties do not make these changes by 2008, Congress should legislate the change."

Maybe it will.

--Michael D. Shear

By Washington Post editors  |  August 17, 2007; 11:05 AM ET
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