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Wash. cancels presidential primary

SEATTLE -- Washington became the eighth state yesterday to scrap its presidential primary, abandoning a process detractors across the country say is expensive and, in some cases, irrelevant.

Officials in each state have cited different reasons for canceling the vote -- from complaints that local parties would not be bound by the balloting when they selected convention delegates to concerns that the front-loaded primary season has lessened the impact of the results from their states.

All were concerned about the burden primary voting would place on state budgets already streaked with red.

"I think the states genuinely were looking at [primaries] as something that wasn't critically necessary," said Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There are other ways you can get at it. You can go through caucus systems."

By favoring caucuses over primaries, however, states will be giving party officials tighter control over the process and lessening the public's influence. They will also be adding to the nominating process.

"We've got a very bad system now," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, who worries that the current situation, with its focus on early primaries, is undermining grass-roots democracy.

The presidential nomination process is complicated, with each state allowed to use different mechanisms for choosing delegates to the parties' national conventions.

Some states -- such as New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Kentucky -- use varying forms of state-wide primaries, which allow voters to pick convention delegates representing the candidate they prefer.

Other states -- such as Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado -- use caucuses, in which decisions are generally made at party meetings and state conventions.

In the past, choosing a nominee often lasted until the end of June. There are so many early primaries and caucuses this year that the Democratic candidate will probably be known by early March, before the apportioning of delegates has begun in 15 states.

That gives states with later primaries even less incentive to be involved. Washington's primary was to be held on March 2, after 10 other states, including New Hampshire and Iowa, already voted.

Governor Gary Locke, a Democrat, said that the $6.8 million cost of the primary was a waste of money in lean times, especially since the state Democratic Party would not use the primary results when it came time to apportion delegates.

With President Bush already the presumptive Republican nominee, Washington's state-run primary seemed to Locke to be a largely meaningless exercise.

"It doesn't make sense to waste taxpayer money on an election that serves no practical purpose," Locke said yesterday, checking off a list of other things the money could be spent on, from health care to police to education.

The state's primary could be reinstituted in another election year. For now, the state Democratic Party will caucus on Feb. 7 to select delegates.

Most states that have canceled primaries will rely on party-run caucuses to apportion delegates. The exception is Utah, where state Democrats plan to run and pay for their own primary.

The debate over whether to use caucuses or primaries, and when to hold them, goes back to the turn of the last century. "In the late 1800s, all states selected delegates by state convention, which may or may not have had caucuses," Gans said. "The delegates were essentially people who were the handpicked delegates of the party leaders."

This led to charges of corruption and oligarchy within the parties, and in the first two decades of the 20th century the progressive movement began pushing for statewide primaries in order to bring more voices into the delegate selection process. Today 34 states use primaries to determine delegates, according to the Democratic National Committee.

The move toward early primaries began in 1988 when Southern Democrats decided they wanted more of a say in electing their nominee. Southern states scheduled their primaries so that they were all grouped together in a regional primary, hoping to increase their influence.

"As far as achieving the aim of the Southerners, it singularly failed," Gans said. The votes ended up being split evenly between Jesse Jackson, Michael S. Dukakis, and Al Gore. But an idea was born. "After that," Gans said, "some of the states started moving their primaries up for various state-selfish reasons."

In Kansas, which has canceled its primary for the last three presidential election cycles, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh worries about the state's lack of influence in choosing candidates and the lower participation levels for caucuses. Canceling this year's primary saved the state $1.75 million. While a few thousand people will turn out for the scheduled March 13 caucus, many more would participate in a primary, he said.

Thornburgh supports a proposal for rotating regional primaries floated by the National Association of Secretaries of State. The idea would allow different parts of the country to exercise more influence in the nominating process on a rotating basis.

"It gives the opportunity for a clearer picture of where the country stands when it's time to nominate our candidates," Thornburgh said. But "the bottom line is the political parties are in charge of determining the system," he said. "Both parties are convinced that they know how to win under the existing rules, and there's too much danger in changing the system. They know if they get off to a fast start, they really only have to get very well organized in a handful of states."

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