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THE CANCELLATION OF DEMOCRACY
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The cancellation of democracy

By Bob Guldin

August 8, 2003

THE RIGHT to vote is absolutely basic to the American system of free and democratic government. That's why it's strange, and more than a little disturbing, that in several states, U.S. citizens are being deprived of their opportunity to vote in a 2004 presidential primary.

Because of a combination of tight budgets and partisan political maneuvering, at least three states, and probably more, will not hold presidential primaries next year. Legislators in recent months have canceled their states' primaries in Colorado, Kansas and Utah. Budget crunches were a big factor in all three states.

Colorado started the trend. On March 5, Republican Gov. Bill Owens signed a bill eliminating the 2004 primary, for a one-time savings of $2.2 million. The move was part of a major budget-cutting package that slashed $800 million from Colorado's 2002-2003 budget.

But in Colorado and elsewhere, there's also a partisan side to the drop-the-primary movement.

That's because President Bush is a shoo-in for renomination, while the Democrats have a vigorous contest with many viable candidates - nine, at the latest count. So Republican strategists figure that holding a 2004 primary will give lots of free publicity to the Democrats while their own nominating process generates close to zero excitement. Canceling the primary, especially in a year of budget austerity, begins to look like a fine idea.

About 38 states and the District of Columbia plan to hold presidential primaries in 2004. Most states without primaries will hold party caucuses. But some states, including Alaska, Nevada and Wyoming, have not yet planned to hold primaries or caucuses, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Until the 1970s, most states chose delegates to the national party conventions through combinations of caucuses - local meetings of the party faithful - and statewide conventions. But primaries are clearly the most democratic and broad-based way of nominating presidential candidates. In a hotly contested primary, 20 percent of eligible voters may turn out - far more than ever show up at caucus meetings.

In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed Republican-backed legislation to cancel the state's primary, which would have saved the state an estimated $3 million. "Arizona can well afford the price of democracy," Ms. Napolitano wrote in her veto message.

In Utah, the Republican-controlled legislature voted not to fund the 2004 primary, and GOP Gov. Michael O. Leavitt signed that measure. Democrats in Utah are attempting to raise money to pay for a party-funded primary while reducing its cost by using fewer polling places.

Similarly, in South Carolina, where the state does not fund presidential primaries, the Democratic Party is struggling to raise money to pay for its 2004 primary, and it's not certain whether that election will be held.

But not all decisions to eliminate primaries have been made on partisan grounds. In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a bill setting the state's next presidential primary for 2008, saving the state an estimated $1.75 million next year. And in Michigan, the legislature voted to scrap the Republican primary with no argument from either Democratic legislators or Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm. Both parties will hold caucuses in 2004.

Cancellation of the Michigan primary will be a loss both to the state's voters - who turned out in record numbers for the 2002 midterm primary - and the country generally. That's because Michigan has sometimes provided political surprises of national importance: Sen. John McCain of Arizona beat candidate George W. Bush in 2000, and on the Democratic side, both George Wallace and the Rev. Jesse Jackson won Michigan primaries.

In Missouri, the future of the primary is in doubt. The legislature adjourned in May without appropriating any money for the 2004 primary.

Besides fiscal austerity, an argument many lawmakers make in favor of abolishing primaries is the "front-loaded" primary schedule. That is, in the race to make their influence felt in the nominating process, more and more states have moved their primaries to the front of the line. A delegate selection process that once ran from February to June is now effectively over in early March. So if your state's primary isn't early, it's irrelevant.

That's why Arizona's Governor Napolitano, who vetoed the bill to cancel her state's primary, also decided to move the date of the primary up to Feb. 3. That way, the Arizona vote is early enough to make a practical difference.

No matter how you rationalize it - budget shortfalls, election schedules or partisan politics - the prospect of multiple states calling off elections is deeply disturbing. The result is that in 2004, fewer Americans will get to participate in one of their country's most important political choices.

Bob Guldin, a writer, edited the book Choosing the President 2004, to be published this fall by Lyons Press. He lives in Takoma Park.

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

 

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