Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Remember South Dakota's primary election of 1988?

It marked a big change in the political process here.

For one thing, voters couldn't go to the polls in their shirt sleeves any longer. Gone was the traditional June primary general election.

South Dakota believed that it could get the attention of presidential candidates by moving up its primary election to February that year.

The idea seemed to work, at least at first. In late 1987 and early 1988, some of the top candidates, or at least people associated with top candidates, visited South Dakota. George Bush, while still vice president, spoke at the Corn Palace in Mitchell as he began campaigning for the presidency.

Republicans in South Dakota voted for Bush, Dole, DuPont and Robertson in 1988. Democrats cast ballots for Gephardt, Gore, Simon, Dukakis, Jackson, Babbitt and Hart.

This experiment in moving up the date of South Dakota's primary election seemed to be working at first, not so much because South Dakota has much political clout, but rather because it was one of the first presidential primaries scheduled after New Hampshire's primary and the Iowa caucus.

The effectiveness of South Dakota's early primary was short-lived, probably for a variety of reasons. The small population of the state makes it difficult to attract candidates who would rather devote their traveling time and other resources to reach more urban destinations.

States with more population also provide political candidates with more than just a larger block of voter support. Each citizen of a state is a potential political contributor, and sparsely populated places like South Dakota can't offer candidates dollars like New York or California or Texas can.

Adding to South Dakota's woes is the fact that several states have already implemented early primary elections to get the first bite at candidates.

That takes more attention away from small states like us. It didn't take long for political candidates to once again ignore South Dakota, despite our early primary. The February primary proved to be ineffective. Only 32 percent of eligible South Dakota voters went to the polls in the 1996 primary, and each of these special early elections cost taxpayers approximately $400,000. In 1997, the state Legislature agreed to follow traditional ways and moved the primary back to June.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) is urging states to implement a plan that would create a system of rotating regional presidential primaries well in advance of the 2004 presidential elections.

It's a plan that has merit, and is worthy of serious consideration.

"Each state needs to work together to place our national interest ahead of individual state interests so we can resolve the crisis that has evolved in the presidential nomination process," said Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin, chair of the NASS Committee on Presidential Primaries.

The proposal would create four geographic regions among the states (South Dakota would be in the Midwestern Region) and would contain provisions to allow the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucus to be held prior to the first round of regional primaries.

The regions would follow a structured calendar of primary election dates which would rotate every four years to allow voters in each region an equal opportunity to be among the first states to have their voices heard in the presidential nominating process.

"No one benefits when states play the quadrennial game of presidential primary leapfrog," said California Secretary of State Bill Jones, vice chair of the NASS Presidential Primary Committee. "We must impose order on the process, but we also need to protect the early elections in small states like New Hampshire and Iowa so that under-funded and less widely known candidates will still have an opportunity to compete through retail one-on-one politics rather than the costly media-driven campaigns that are required in larger states."

"Front-loading the presidential primary process is forcing candidates to begin campaigning earlier than ever," said South Dakota Secretary of State Joyce Hazeltine, past president of NASS. "By implementing the rotating regional primary plan, we can more clearly define the presidential campaign season and provide voters and candidates with the opportunity to focus more intently on candidates as they discuss issues relevant to each region."

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