GOP primary plan deserves brisk debate

Overdue: Republican proposal allows a majority of voters to assess candidates before deciding.

May 10, 2000

ABSOLUTELY needed. Some good ideas. Probably wouldn't work. Dead on arrival anyway.

Those are among the early reactions to a Republican proposal for reinvigorating the presidential primary system in this country. Democrats immediately asked cynically why they should agree to leave a system that put their man in the White House for the past eight years.

Understandable, perhaps, but embarrassing for a party with the name Democrat. Maryland Democrats in particular should become change agents, examining the GOP proposal carefully and offering their own refinements.

The Republican proposal would move Maryland's primary into May -- a distinct improvement over its current March slot. Maryland had hoped to get more campaign action by scheduling its primary in March, but its 10 electoral votes simply haven't been enough leverage to attract the contenders. We're a tarmac stop at the airport, a quick dash in for a fund-raiser or a photo op -- and nothing is likely to change that short of a new system or new primary date.

But the argument for change goes far beyond any local angle.

Both parties chose a nominee this year before half the states voted. That effectively disenfranchised at least half the electorate, shoving those voters so far back in the calendar that staying home was the rational thing to do.

It's hard enough to get people to vote when the contest is undecided. Did anyone know some states were still voting last in late April? Did anyone care? Except for the occasional exchanges on Social Security or gun control, the candidates have seemed muted and distant since the "super" primaries in March.

So, Republicans propose to keep the issue in doubt by staggering the primary schedule with smaller states voting in March, next largest in April, next in May and, finally, largest in June. Under this approach -- which both parties and all 50 state legislatures would have to approve -- a majority of voters would have the benefit of a campaign that allowed more careful consideration over a longer period of time.

Democrats in Maryland should urge their party's national leaders to offer something better -- or buy into the Republican idea.

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