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Published: Tuesday, 3/25/2008

Primary failure

MICHIGAN Democrats have now struck out twice in their efforts to have a meaningful presidential primary election this year.

First, they defied the Democratic National Committee's rules by holding a primary in January - even though they were warned that any delegates elected that early would not be seated. The result was a farce of an election in which none of the major candidates campaigned, and all the major players took their names off the ballot - all except, that is, for Hillary Clinton, who herself said the contest was "meaningless," until she turned out to need the votes.

After finally realizing the national party was dead serious about not seating the illegally elected delegates, the Democrats tried again. State leaders, most of whom had endorsed Senator Clinton, wanted the Legislature to rerun the primary on June 3, which this time would be paid for with privately-raised funds.

Sen. Barack Obama took a dim view of this idea, however, and with good reason. This plan would have disenfranchised anybody who voted in the Republican primary in January.

Assured that a vote in the Democratic primary would be meaningless, thousands of Obama supporters and independents did just that, in an honest effort to have some say in choosing a president.

The division among Democrats doomed any efforts to get a new primary, and the Michigan Legislature finally adjourned last week without even taking a vote on a new primary bill.

But if it is clear there won't be another election, Michigan Democrats still have to figure out some way of selecting a slate of delegates that the convention will seat. Probably the best of a host of unsatisfactory options is for the party to run a so-called "firehouse primary," which is a statewide caucus that looks very much like a primary election.

Setting one of these up is costly and cumbersome, but the party knows how; it is how Michigan Democrats selected convention delegates in 2000 and 2004. Another suggestion, for an Internet-only caucus, would effectively disenfranchise many in traditional Democratic constituencies including the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

What is clear is that Michigan Democrats need to do something. Their party faces the most exciting and perhaps most important contest in its history. And, as of now, they won't even be allowed to take part in their national convention in Denver this August, and Michigan voters will be the only ones in the nation denied a chance to cast a ballot for Senator Obama.

If that's the best Michigan's Democratic leaders can do, they are an embarrassment to their members, themselves, and to democracy itself.



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