The following article appeared in The Baltimore Sun op-ed page on August 8, 2003
The Cancellation of Democracy
By Bob Guldin
Originally published 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
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
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
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
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