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Presidential primary needs fix, but not this

North Carolina is picking a fight with both the Republican and Democratic parties nationally, and the episode shines a light on how anachronistic our system for choosing a president is.

The much-discussed voter ID law Gov. Pat McCrory signed this month included several other election-related changes. One that hasn’t gotten much attention: The law moves North Carolina’s presidential primary way up in the pecking order starting in 2016. The primary moves from its current spot in May to days after South Carolina’s primary. South Carolina has traditionally held one of the earliest slots, right behind Iowa and New Hampshire.

The idea is to take North Carolina’s presidential primary from irrelevance to relevance. But the change violates both parties’ rules, and each might slap North Carolina with severe penalties. Both parties want to maintain the current order and threaten stiff punishment for violators. North Carolina could lose more than three-quarters of its Republican delegates if it sticks with its plan and could expect a similar slap from Democrats. If that happened, the move up the calendar could backfire, with the small number of delegates making North Carolina a state that candidates could safely ignore.

In 2008, Democrats took delegates away from Michigan and Florida for violating the calendar. Republicans did the same to Florida in 2012.

One wonders how long the national parties can maintain control over the current illogical system. It would seem the states could all storm the gates at the same time, and the national parties couldn’t penalize everyone.

While we find it incongruent that the Republican legislature would spend $4 million to hold an additional primary (other N.C. races would still be decided in May), we don’t blame North Carolina, or other states, for wanting in on the attention and money that comes from holding an early presidential contest. And even if the state is stripped of most of its delegates, is it any less relevant to the presidential race than it is with a primary in May? With the exception of Obama-Clinton in 2008, the presidential nominations have typically been settled long before North Carolina votes.

The whole system is flawed. Iowa and New Hampshire are small, unrepresentative states whose influence on the nominations far exceeds any logical level. The sprint to be early forces citizens to cast votes nearly a year before the general election in November. Millions of voters in more than half the states have no meaningful say in a typical year. And the nominations are usually sewn up quickly, before candidates are fully vetted.

Better than a state-by-state assault on party rules would be fundamental reform. A number of ideas have been floated. We are perhaps most intrigued by what’s known as the Delaware Plan, in which a series of primaries are held throughout the first half of the year, with the smallest states going first and the biggest states going last. That would give lesser-known candidates a chance and almost all voters a say and time to get to know the field.

There are several other approaches, each with its own flaws. Almost any of them would be better than the current system, and would end the need for North Carolina and other states to try to sneak their way into presidential relevance.

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