Sunday, November 9, 2003


Several states have moved to drop their presidential primaries next year, worried about costs in tight financial times and wondering if the political exercise would serve any purpose.

Some say they can’t afford the millions of dollars it costs to hold an election. Others say the decisions reflect the lopsided nature of modern primaries: The front-runner gets anointed by the press and campaign donors after the first few state primaries and the rest of the primaries are formalities.

The decisions add fuel to the argument that the primary system is in dire need of repair. In most states forgoing a primary, party-run caucuses will be used instead to choose delegates to the national conventions.

“Fewer voters will participate because [caucuses] are more complex,” said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. State politicians are freezing out average voters, he said, because caucuses bring “lower turnout, and more advantage to whoever’s organized.”

Primaries usually don’t get turnout much higher than 20 percent of registered voters, but that is far more than for caucuses. In Missouri, the 2000 primary brought 745,000 people to the polls, while the 1996 caucus brought 20,000, the state Democratic Party said.

So far, Kansas, Colorado and Utah — all with Republican-controlled legislatures — have canceled their state-run 2004 primaries. Republican legislatures tried unsuccessfully to drop primaries in Arizona and Missouri, but Democratic governors either vetoed the primary bill or restored the funding.

Some Democrats complain that cutting primaries hurts their party, with a crowded field of presidential candidates. President Bush has no Republican challenger.

Other Democrats are pushing to get rid of primaries. Maine dropped its presidential primary for next year, and New Mexico effectively did the same, enacting a law allowing parties to hold caucuses. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, set a Feb. 3 caucus. June primaries will go on for other elections.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, head of the Democratic Governors Association, is calling a special session to discuss scrapping his state’s primary next year.

“Why waste $7 million of scarce state money?” Mr. Locke asked. Democrats in Washington state are using precinct caucuses in February to allocate national convention delegates, making the March 2 primary pointless.

Money worries have exacerbated doubts about the front-loaded nature of the primaries, officials and analysts said.

“It started to snowball,” said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “We’re spending all this money, we don’t have an impact on the process, and people aren’t coming because they don’t feel they have an impact.”

“Clearly, the process is flawed,” said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. “The country is only now beginning to wake up to the fact that there’s a primary. Active Democrats are only now focusing on it. Average voters aren’t focused at all. And that’s not good.”

Mr. Gans said the changes aren’t all bad. A turn to caucuses strengthens person-to-person politics, rather than the TV-driven, mass advertising campaigns that mark big primary days such as the March 2 Super Tuesday primaries, when 11 states vote at once.

In some states where the government has chosen not to hold a primary, the state Democratic Party has decided to conduct one anyway and bear the cost.

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