MEADVILLE, Pa. - In this pretty, snowy college town deep in Pennsylvania's north country, enterprising college students are mapping out how to fix the way we nominate presidential candidates. Their ideas are too good to ignore.
The Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College is embarking on a two-year Nomination Reform Initiative, and its inaugural event yesterday (Feb. 13th) was inspiring, indeed. Representatives from 15 regional colleges studied the nomination process through an on-line course provided by the New York Times Knowledge Network. They learned the intricacies of the primary process, enumerated its benefits (some) and its flaws (many), examined proposals for reform, and then came up with their own ideas.
While there were unique and intriguing features in some of the reform ideas - I'll get to my favorites in a moment - there were also unmistakable common threads. The students uniformly agreed that the system now on display in 2008 is too long, too messy, too confusing, and just plain unfair. Interestingly, many of the students wanted to retain a central feature of the current primary calendar - that is, the opening roles played by small states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The opportunity for retail politics, to share conversation with a potential president while sipping coffee at a diner, still holds tremendous appeal even to young Americans groomed in cyberspace.
They do, indeed, want to be able to reach out and touch their candidates. They just don't want to relocate to Iowa or New Hampshire for the privilege.
And that was a key element of these proposals: A desire to fix a system that is seen to be unfair because it favors the same small, unrepresentative states year after election year.
A group of students from the University of Akron proposed to create four rounds of primaries, starting in Iowa and New Hampshire, then moving to a bigger group of small states, then a third round they call "National Primary Day", and ending with the four largest states voting in what still could be a decisive chapter in the process.
Small states would also lead off the calendar in the reform proposal offered by students from Cleveland State University, only they thought that seven "mini Super Tuesdays" would be a better way of rotating regional primaries throughout the country. Regional primaries, in fact, seem attractive to lots of these students. The delegation from Allegheny College suggested that the "regions" be created by lumping together contiguous Congressional districts into five, equal groups.
I'm not sure what's happening at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, but they sure do produce students with innovative notions. One group offered a complex plan that would use the lever of free television and public financing to create, as they say, "a more democratic selection process than presently exists." Or, as one student put it, "Democracy is expensive. You have to make sacrifices."
I was most enchanted by another Slippery Rock plan to shorten the primary calendar and rotate the order of states based on voter participation in the previous presidential election. What a novel idea! Give citizens an incentive to turn out on Election Day, to maintain a treasured spot at the head of the pack or move up from a lonely position at the bottom. This would be especially appealing to young voters, who often feel - with some justification - that their votes don't really matter.
This shorthand summary does not do justice to the complexities of some of these proposals, which you should be able to soon access on www.nominationreform.org. And no doubt the political establishment, which benefits mightily from the status quo, could raise numerous objections to these ideas, some of which could rightly be called naïve, others even radical.
The point here is that young people were figuring out how to fix the system by working in the system - all with an eye to expanding voter participation and engagement. These students were hardly representative of young Americans their age. They were way too informed, earnest (and well-dressed.) But for a few hours in a snowy corner of a college campus, they owned the future.
Jane Eisner, author of Taking Back The Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy, is the vice president for national programs and initiatives at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the center, Eisner was City Hall bureau chief, a foreign correspondent, editorial page editor and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.