The Cancellation of Democracy

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

                    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