Tight times spell end for some primaries


ST. LOUIS - At $4.98 a vote, democracy can get pretty expensive.

At least that's how it looks to some people in Missouri, where the budget is in such dire straits that state maintenance workers have unscrewed every third light bulb in government buildings.

The state is poised to push tens of thousands of children off subsidized health insurance. It might have to eliminate aid payments to the poorest of poor adults. Times are so tight that posters have gone up in government offices everywhere, reminding secretaries to turn off the coffee pots at night, lest they use up a few precious cents' worth of electricity.

In such an environment, state Rep. David Pearce has decided that voting is a luxury Missourians can't afford. He has sponsored a bill to cancel the state's presidential primary.

Holding the election in February would cost at least $3.7 million. In the 2000 primary, barely 19 percent of registered voters bothered to show up at the polls. Pearce, a Republican, looks at those numbers and concludes: It's not worth it.

Kansas and Arizona also are considering dropping their 2004 presidential primaries. Utah and Colorado already have. In all those states, as in Missouri, the no-vote movement is being led by Republicans, who assume their primary will be about as suspenseful as a cup of vanilla pudding, with President Bush coasting to victory.

But Democrats anticipate an interesting - or at least somewhat competitive - race featuring six or eight candidates. So they're not all that eager to save a few million dollars by shutting down the polls. Especially not in Missouri, where some hope that a good showing might boost the presidential hopes of native son Richard A. Gephardt, the longtime congressman from St. Louis.

If the primary were canceled, it would be up to the state political parties to hold caucuses, at their own expense.

In theory, all voters could participate, gathering at a local library or in a rented hall to discuss candidates with their neighbors. In practice, though, caucuses tend to draw far fewer voters than primaries. And with the notable exception of Iowa's presidential face-off, caucuses tend to draw much less attention from the national news media, political pundits and the candidates.

That's why Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has hinted that she will veto a bill to abolish the state's primary.

Even as Republicans maneuvered to yank $3 million in presidential-primary funding from Arizona's ailing budget, Napolitano announced last month that the balloting would be held Feb. 3, 2004 -one week after New Hampshire's primary. She promised that such an early election would position Arizona to grab the national spotlight - not to mention a good share of campaign dollars.

Napolitano estimates that campaign spending on food, gas, hotels and advertising will pump more than $3 million into the state, enough to pay for the primary. She expects candidates galore to travel the state, along with some "political tourists" who spend their vacations trooping to rallies and news conferences for fun.

"Wouldn't you want to be in Arizona in January and February, rather than in New Hampshire or Des Moines? Come on, it's a no-brainer," said the governor's spokeswoman, Kris Mayes.

But Bob Fannin, the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, isn't so sure that excitement is what Arizona needs. He grumbles that the hullabaloo will distract local lawmakers from doing their jobs.

Stephanie Simon is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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