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Some states scrapping presidential primaries, citing cost, low turnout

NEW YORK -- Several states have moved to drop their presidential primaries next year, worried about costs in tight financial times and wondering whether the political exercise would serve any purpose. Some states say they cannot afford the millions of dollars it takes to put on an election. Others say the decisions reflect the lopsided nature of modern primaries: The front-runner gets anointed by the media 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 repairs. 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 do not bring out more than 20 percent of registered voters, but they are better than 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.

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

Some Democrats protest that cutting primaries hurts them especially, with their crowded field of candidates. President Bush has no Republican challenger.

But other Democrats are pushing to get rid of primaries. Maine dropped its presidential primary for next year, and New Mexico effectively did; it passed a law allowing parties to hold caucuses, and then Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, set an early Feb. 3 caucus. June primaries will go on for other elections.

Governor Gary Locke of Washington, 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?" Locke said. Democrats in Washington state are using precinct caucuses in February to allocate national convention delegates, making the March 2 primary seem pointless.

Money worries have exacerbated existing doubts about the front-loaded nature of the primaries, officials and specialists 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."

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin said: "Clearly, the process is flawed. 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."

Gans said the changes are not all bad. A turn to caucuses strengthens person-to-person politics, rather than the television-driven, mass advertising campaigns that mark such big primary days as Super Tuesday, when 11 states vote.

Galvin, a Democrat, worries instead that the antiprimary push in GOP-controlled states is an effort to stop any criticism of Bush from within his party. "They don't want a president on the ballot when people can come out and make a protest," he said.

But Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee, said that the decisions have been made by the states, not the national party, and that for them cost is the main concern.

"There's no reason to spend the money when it isn't necessary," she said.

In some states where the government has chosen to forgo the primary, the state Democratic Party has decided to conduct one anyway and bear the cost itself.

In South Carolina, where the state never pays for either party's primary, Democrats decided to hold one Feb. 3 and are struggling to raise an estimated $500,000 to pay for it.

Utah's Democrats want their voters to have a say and are holding their own primary. "We want to show the Utah Legislature they were wrong and the democratic process is alive in Utah," the state party chairman, Donald Dunn, said.

forgoing elections
Several states have moved to cancel 2004 presidential primaries, including:

COLORADO -- Abolished primary to save $2 million.

KANSAS -- Canceled April 6 primary to save $1.75 million. Legislators also believed it would be held too late to have much influence.

MAINE -- Eliminated primary; both caucuses and primaries were relied on in the past to choose delegates to national convention.

NEW MEXICO -- Allowed parties to hold a February caucus for presidential nominations. June primary will still be held for local and state elections.

UTAH -- Scrapped presidential primary after the last one drew 10 percent of the electorate. Democrats will hold their own primary on Feb. 24 using private funds.

WASHINGTON -- Will consider eliminating the March 2 primary at a special session in December. Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, said the primary "serves no practical purpose" because party caucuses will choose delegates.
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