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Winter primaries leave rest out in cold

I HOPE the people of New Hampshire think like I do. Because of the way the primary system is set up, they'll be deciding which presidential candidates I'll be able to vote for.

In a flawless system where "one man, one vote" was a reality, we all would get an equal say in the elections, both the primaries and the main election. But one of the flaws in our system is that primary elections are distributed unequally over the five-month primary season. The problem is, this makes some people's votes - those in states with early primaries, like Iowa and New Hampshire - count a lot more than others.

I'm a resident of North Carolina, so I don't get to vote in a primary election until May 2, over three months from now. This wouldn't be a problem if nothing changed from the first primary to the last - after all, someone has to go first. But plenty does change in those few months.

If underdog candidates don't do well in early primaries, they may be forced to end their campaigns. Some have speculated that if Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) doesn't win the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 1, he doesn't have a realistic hope of winning the nomination. If this happens, he might as well quit in February - before most citizens ever have the opportunity to vote for him.

The states that go first can't avoid being tests for the non-frontrunners. But if such states are going to determine a candidate's fate they should somehow represent the whole country. Voters in those states are making a decision that affects the rest of the country's options. And New Hampshire and Iowa are not such states.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Hampshire's population is only 1.5 percent minority, and Iowa's only 3.3 percent. On the other hand, the United States is 18 percent non-white. Only 59 percent of people in New Hampshire and 44 percent of Iowans live in metropolitan areas; in the United States it's 80 percent.

These small states, which are largely rural and overwhelmingly white, make choices that the rest of us have to live with. If the voters in New Hampshire and Iowa don't like John McCain, it probably won't matter whether voters in the other 48 states support him or not. He won't be in the race when it comes time for those states to vote.

New Hampshire and Iowa have been the first tests for candidates for years. But their importance has increased as a result of changes in the pattern of primaries overall.

Because each state controls its primary date, there is an incentive for it to schedule the election strategically. Because later primaries are largely inconsequential, each state feels pressure to hold its primary earlier in order to make it count. As a result, there has been a rush-to-the-front-of-the-line trend among states.

Iowa's caucus was Monday, Jan. 24 - the earliest date ever. New Hampshire moved its primary up three weeks to Feb. 1 to avoid being preempted by other states. Many other states have followed, moving primaries earlier and earlier.

The primary season effectively has been condensed into a two month period. The season doesn't officially end any sooner, but for all practical purposes, it does. In 1976, primaries had determined 25 percent of delegates to the nominating conventions by April. This year, over 85 percent of delegates will have been chosen by then.

States that haven't followed suit in moving their primaries - like North Carolina - will be left in the dust. By the time May 2 comes around, the nominations will be all but decided, and my vote will count for virtually nothing. By then, no one will be thinking about primaries anymore - they'll have moved on to worrying about the race against the other party.

This problem has an easy solution. Simply setting a national primary date when all 50 primaries would take place would solve it. Even mandating a very narrow period, like a few weeks, and allowing states to set primary dates within that range would work, too.

Some argue that spreading the primaries out over several months is necessary for candidates to be able to devote some time to each state. But having my vote matter at all is more important than having candidates come to my state and shake hands at a picnic.

If we believe in "one man, one vote," an overhaul of the primary system is necessary. But it's too late for that this year. In the meantime, I'll just have to hope that people in Iowa and New Hampshire know what they're doing.

(Bryan Maxwell's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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