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The Primary Problem

And an entertaining solution.

11:00 PM, Feb 22, 2007 • By BILL WHALEN
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Is there way around this mess? My suggestion is take what works for the National Basketball Association--the lottery it holds every year to determine the order for draft picks--and apply the same principle to the primaries states. Hold a random drawing a year before the primaries are scheduled to begin, and assign the 50 states and the District of Columbia their respective voting dates based on luck of the draw.

Here's how the plan would work.

Rule One: No presidential primaries or caucuses until the first Monday in February. Let the public have a peaceful January breaking resolutions and watching football.

Rule Two: Start the selection process with the same first four states as in 2008. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina all are relatively small states. And they reflect four regions of the country with distinctly different economies and cultures. That makes for a level playing field.

Rule Three: Once those four states vote, the game changes. From here on, primaries are held among seven states, every Tuesday, for the following six weeks. That mix would include one "mega" state* with at least 20 electoral votes, three mid-size states** with a minimum of 10 electoral votes, three smaller states*** worth four to nine electoral votes, plus one small state**** with three electoral votes (on the seventh Tuesday, one "mega" state, two mid-sized states and one small state would vote).

I conducted such a lottery with the aid of four baseball caps and one shredded piece of paper. Based upon the new rules, if this system were implemented a year ago, here's what the 2008 primaries would look like:

Feb. 5, Iowa

Feb. 10, Nevada

Feb. 13, New Hampshire

Feb. 20, South Carolina

Feb. 27, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oregon, Alaska

March 6, Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, North Dakota

March 13, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, South Dakota

March 20, Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, District of Columbia

March 27, Texas, New Jersey, Indiana, Nebraska, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming

April 3, New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Connecticut, Mississippi, West Virginia, Vermont

April 10, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Delaware, Montana

Obviously, not every state would be pleased with this outcome. California, for example, once again would be preceded by roughly two dozen states. But there are ways to address the fairness system. One option would be to prevent the 14 states that voted on the first two "Super Tuesdays" from getting the same early start in the next election. And, just as there's a firewall in the NBA lottery that prevents the team with the worst record from finishing lower than fourth in the draft, this political lottery could guarantee that the seventh-week states would finish no lower than, say, the fourth week in the next election.

There are two major benefits to such a system. First, it would reverse this country's downward spiral toward a national primary that unfairly rewards better-known, better-financed candidates. And, by chewing up all of February and a good portion of March, it would fill the void between the Super Bowl and baseball's Opening Day.

And if a primary system can't do that--keep us entertained for at least a few weeks--then what good is it?

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

* The 7 "Mega"-states (20+ EVs): California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas

** The 14 "mid-size" states (10-19 EVs): Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

*** The 18 "smaller" states (4-9 EVs): Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, West Virginia

**** The 8 "small" states (3 EVs): Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming