LANSING, Mich. - Few people are thinking much about next year's presidential election. But the startling truth is that within less than five months, we'll almost certainly know who the nominees of both parties will be.
Michigan voters will get a chance to weigh in even sooner, on Feb. 7. Except most of them won't. The scandal is that in this state both major parties - especially Democrats - have worked hard to limit voters' ability to have a say.
This wasn't always so. Time-travel back to 1992, when there were hot races for both nominations. President George H.W. Bush was being embarrassingly challenged from the right by Pat Buchanan, who chose Michigan to test his theory that white, blue-collar union workers were secretly in his camp.
Bill Clinton was being dogged by Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and lingering doubts. But on St. Patrick's Day, Michigan voters effectively settled both races. Mr. Clinton won a solid majority. President Bush crushed Mr. Buchanan by almost three to one.
That's how the process is supposed to work. But it doesn't anymore. Democrats decided to abandon the open primary system after 1992 and replace it with a semi-secretive caucus system, in which only voters willing to swear they were Democrats could “vote.” That is, vote for only candidates the party allowed.
They also had to find out where their caucus site was (almost never at their usual voting place), learn during what few hours voting was allowed, and go and wait through a tedious process. Few voters bothered, which is just what the party hacks wanted.
Republicans stayed truer to their principles, but they began to mutter after George W. Bush, the establishment's choice, was roundly defeated by U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the Michigan Republican Primary in 2000. Bush supporters alleged that without a primary of their own, Democrats crossed over to vote for Mr. McCain.
This time, neither party will hold a primary. Legislative Republicans chose to “temporarily” abolish it, on the grounds that this would save the state a little money, and wasn't really needed, since they are not expected to have a contest and Democrats refuse to use the primary.
That makes some sense on paper ... though not in reality.
The fact is that a vast number of voters want the freedom to oscillate between the parties.
Democrats argue that their rules don't allow them to participate in primaries in states like Michigan, which don't have voter registration by party. However, that's exactly what happens in Wisconsin, which asked for an exemption - and got one.
Both parties have also worried that if one side doesn't have a contested race, voters may come and make mischief in the other party's primary. But political scientists have found essentially no evidence that this happens. Surveys showed that while some McCain voters thought of themselves as Democrats and independents, they voted for the Arizona senator because they liked him.
For 2004, the Democrats will once again have a caucus system. Stung by past criticism, they say they've tried to make it more inclusive. Voters willing to swear that they are a Democrat can vote between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Feb. 7.
If you can't make it, you can request a mail ballot from the state party. Matter of fact, you can get one in Spanish if you want, or Arabic. That is, if you can figure out how to get one. Finding out where to vote isn't that easy, either, though you may be able to figure it out if you get on the Internet and go to www.mi-democrats.com.
That's how you get an absentee ballot, too. Don't have access to the Internet or knowledge of how to use it? Well, you can send the Michigan Democratic Party in Lansing a letter, or a fax, or an e-mail if you can borrow a friend's log-on.
Or, you can vote via the Internet.
That worries all of the Democratic presidential candidates except Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. The gang of seven has sent the national party a letter opposing Internet voting in Michigan's Democratic caucuses.
Some say they are more worried because the “Internet community” essentially created Mr. Dean's candidacy and is believed to be potentially friendly to Mr. Clark's. And that may be so.
Nevertheless, this summer a virus seized this columnist's computer, and sent out hundreds of treacherous e-mails under my name. Why couldn't a Lyndon LaRouche virus, say, be designed to hijack a party's primary?
I doubt that we are ready for Internet voting. However, there is another system available. It worked tolerably well for Bill Clinton, and John and Robert Kennedy, and for other candidates for many, many years.
They call it a primary election.
For democracy's sake, they might once again give it a try.