There’s still almost a whole year left until Americans head to the ballot box and choose the next president of the United States. But with candidates from each political party battling it out to be their party’s respective nominee, the election has already taken a turn for the nasty. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded insults about who would be better on foreign policy. The Republican primaries have arguably been even more volatile with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney trading barbs on just about everything from taxes to crime and immigration. An even more odious incident occurred just weeks ago, when Senator John McCain’s mother – who has often taken the campaign trail with her son – ripped into Romney’s Mormon faith.

Finally, the elections have become exciting. Candidates are raising – and spending – piles of cash, debating on TV and the American public is really starting to pay attention. With the California primary pushed up earlier than ever, Californians are looking at the issues and starting to side with candidates. But there’s a good chance that by the time we get to vote, the nomination will be already be sewn up. That’s due to the two juggernauts of the nomination process: Iowa and New Hampshire.

Because these two teeny-tiny states are the first to choose delegates in the nominating process, over the years they’ve amassed countless political power. What happens in these two states will set the political climate for the rest of the election. That has serious downsides not just for the rest of the country, but for the vibrancy of our democracy as well.

Iowa is the first state to vote in what is perhaps the most endemically idiosyncratic process in American politics. Iowa doesn’t have a primary. Instead, they rely on an archaic caucus system once reserved for party bosses, which is now open to registered voters. To make matters even dumber, the Republicans and the Democrats have entirely different procedures for voting.

The Republican caucus begins like any other simple election day. Caucus participants show up and vote. Things get a bit stranger when each precinct chooses delegates. These delegates go on to a county convention, which in turn chooses delegates to go on to a district convention. These delegates go on to a state convention that … chooses more delegates. These delegates ultimately decide Iowa’s Republican nominee at the Republican National Convention.

Democratic caucus participants show up early in the morning. There they separate into different groups, depending on the candidate they support, and spend around half an hour trying to convince each other to join their group. Eventually, the group receiving less than 15 percent of the vote must move into a “viable” candidate’s group. Consequently, the second-choice candidate of the participants can, in many circumstances, be just as important as the first-choice candidate. In 2004, some caucuses were reported to have lasted from 6:30 in the morning to 8 at night.

Sound hellish? It is. Personally, I’d rather get drinks with Rudy Giuliani – which I assume includes being water boarded at least several times – than attend an Iowa caucus. And apparently I’m not alone: Less than 6 percent of eligible Iowans turned out for the Democratic Caucus’ last election.

New Hampshire is the other state where candidates spend most of their time campaigning in the primaries, trying to curry favor with locals. Although not as convoluted as the Iowa caucuses – the primaries use a simple ballot box like all non-idiotic election processes – New Hampshire’s place as the first state with a primary allows its voters to unduly influence the nominating process.

Many have pushed for a national primary day, with every state voting much like a general election. Such ideas are understandable, although they are misguided. This type of idea allows voters face-to-face time with candidates, rather than forcing them to rely on television advertisements and name recognition over anything else. Primaries and caucuses let candidates who don’t have bundles of funds and celebrity statuses to share their ideas with voters. The best way to allow early primaries without giving all the power to Iowa’s nebulous practices is to hold a random lottery that allots a few states early voting in each election. Politicians from Iowa and New Hampshire will certainly fight these proposals, but it’s time we restored some sense back into our elections. But then again, in America, maybe that’s an oxymoron.