- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

It’s a shame that more people take the time to vote for “American Idol” than for the American president.

Today, the Virginia presidential primary is open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation. But how many honestly know how well the contestants have performed so they can cast informed ballots?

The Northern Virginia chapter of the black sorority Zeta Phi Beta sought to provide voters with some answers on Saturday morning.

At the start of a nonpartisan forum sponsored by the Zetas in Old Town Alexandria, moderator LaToya Foster, host of WOL-AM’s (1450) “Live at Five” asked prospective Virginia voters to raise their hands if they already had decided on a candidate.

Only three of 40 participants in the diverse crowd gathered in the historic, black Departmental Progressive Club headquarters raised their hands.

But after a lively, two-hour debate with volunteer representatives of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, when Ms. Foster posed the question again, the number of undecideds had lessened dramatically.

“Today helped us a lot,” said Roxanna Mejia of Burke, who was accompanied by two male relatives who attended the forum “to be able to be informed on what’s going on in the whole country.”

The audience was first handed a two-page voters guide listing brief biographies on 10 presidential candidates including President Bush, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, South Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Lyndon LaRouche, who were each represented during the question-and-answer period.

“Empowering people to become active partners in improving the quality of their life is our goal,” said Krysta Jones, a Washington lobbyist who publicized the Zeta forum. “Times are changing and times are evolving, and to be nonpartisan is to be empowered.”

She said “most groups just focus on voter registration, but you’ve got to take that a step further, because you really have to know all the candidates and get an informed opinion in order to change the country.”

She added that voters must participate long before Election Day.

Though the Mejia family was leaning toward voting for Mr. Dean even though he did not campaign in Virginia, the Zeta-sponsored forum helped them decide on a second choice should he drop out of the race.

Natalie Mosher of Arlington said that “it’s always good to have citizens participate in civic engagement.”

To this Dean supporter, the forum “brought out a lot of things” that also helped her decide on a second choice.

Like Alexandria Mayor William Euille and U.S. Rep. James P. Moran, who spoke in Mr. Dean’s stead, Mrs. Mosher said, “I’m not ready to jump ship yet.”

As for her son Rob, the issue-driven debate helped swing his support to Mr. Edwards, whom he had been following and researching.

To be sure, Christian Dorsey, an Arlington community-development organizer, did an impressive job of hammering home Mr. Edwards’ campaign objectives, such as providing affordable health care, creating jobs and the “college for everyone” plan.

Still, most in the predominantly Democratic crowd applauded when Mr. Clark’s representative, Michael Brown of Richmond, said they were “ABBs: Anybody But Bush-ers.”

This anti-Bush atmosphere did not deter James Parmelee, an Alexandria Republican who seemed to welcome the banter. He was wearing a green “No Tax Hike” sticker, signaling his disapproval of the budget bills circulating through the Virginia General Assembly and chided the Democrats for their spending habits.

“I applaud [the sponsors] for having both parties [here],” Mr. Parmelee said, even though the state’s Republican nominating process is closed to Democrats and independents.

Mr. Parmelee not only argued on the president’s behalf, but also urged participants to lobby their state representatives to change the open presidential-primary process.

Some, mainly party members like Mr. Parmelee, are opposed to an open primary because they fear it gives organized spoilers the opportunity to taint the results. They contend they could end up with candidates who do not reflect the party platform. Therefore, they are seeking a change in the Virginia Constitution to close primaries.

As an independent, I hope they fail.

Open primaries give everybody a chance to participate in choosing presidential candidates before the process is a done deal. Voters who don’t feel compelled to join a particular party ought to be able to voice their preferences earlier, not later, when their options are limited.

Four years ago, for example, I voted in the Republican primary.

Today’s results in Virginia, generally conservative Republican country, will offer the rest of the nation an idea of how the Democratic presidential candidates will fare in the South.

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