We did not always allow voters to pick their party nominees for president. In the 19th century, a system known as "King Caucus" prevailed, whereby a few party leaders in smoke-filled rooms handpicked presidential nominees.
In the early 1900s, the Progressive Era ushered in an array of political reforms. One of them was the establishment of a presidential primary, which allowed the public to vote for candidates. Anyone familiar with Florida politics may be surprised to know that it was Florida in 1901 that first promoted a primary system. Two years later, Wisconsin used a primary to elect state officials and, over the next few years, Oregon and Florida held presidential primaries.
World War II, the remaining states joined these early reformers. Eventually, every state adopted a primary election - either a "preference primary" with confidential, binding ballots or "delegate selection primary" (caucus), whereby voters informally pick delegates who then vote for them at conventions.
Each state determines the rules for its primary, and there are four basic types: closed primaries permit only those individuals registered in a party to participate in that party's voting (Florida's system); semi-open primaries allow both party members and independents to vote; and open primaries allow all voters to participate in the primary. Nonpartisan primaries elect offices such as school board member or judge.
The Democratic and Republican National Committees set the primary calendar, which typically runs from early February until early June. Ever since 1972, Iowa and New Hampshire have insisted on being the first caucus and first primary, respectively, in the primary calendar, even passing state laws demanding as much.
Even though the national committees and other states don't have to adhere to these laws, they have been reluctant to challenge them.
But, because the nominations are often decided by March, state legislatures began voting to move their primaries closer toward the beginning of the primary calendar. Such defiance of party rules - known as "front-loading" - is the result of states wanting their residents to be able to help pick the party nominees and reap the economic benefits that come from being an early state.
Also, legislators want to be in a position to cut deals with presidential candidates in exchange for endorsements and help campaigning.
Then, in 2008, Southern states complained about not having Southern representation in the early races. So South Carolina was allowed to have an early primary. Western states followed suit and were appeased when Nevada was permitted to move its caucus to join Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the pack.
But the national parties had to then draw the line or risk all the states crowding into February. During the debate, Iowa and New Hampshire, concerned about protecting their early status, even threatened to move to December.
A compromise resulted. But then Florida's Democrats demanded to move ahead of the start date for the primary calendar. They were threatened with penalties, including a disqualification of their 2008 primary vote. Nonetheless, Florida played chicken and lost, and was hit with several sanctions.
As the joke goes, its déjà vu again. Florida - this time the Republicans - refused to follow national rules, demanding to move the primary up to Jan. 31. At the same time, Florida Republicans defied the national rule that any primary before April 1 award its delegates proportionally. Instead, Florida demanded to award delegates in a winner-take-all format.
And, once again, among other penalties, Florida will lose nearly half its delegates (50 instead of 99), and even though the state will host the 2012 Republican National Convention, in Tampa, Florida's delegation will not get the usual preferred seating or an advantageous role in drafting the party's platform.
Unfortunately, Florida has gone from being the national leader for progressive, democratic primary reform to being Flori-duh, a state where reforms have been undone and a state whose leaders threaten to take their ball and bat and go home if they don't get to pitch.
Robert Watson, Ph.D., is a professor and coordinator of American studies at Lynn University.