Regional primaries: answer to voter apathy in presidential elections?

With the 1980 presidential campaign and transition to the new administration barely over, party leaders and lawmakers in several states are looking three years down the political road to 1984.

With last November's balloting continuing and even deepening the tradition of low voter turnout in national elections, there is much interest in ways to increase citizen participation.

One theory is that if the presidential primary system were simplified more voter interest could be created.

A broad range of proposals, few of them new, are being trotted out in state legislatures. Some would-be reformers, like Massachusetts Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, are pushing for regional presidential primaries.

At this point, however, there is nothing to suggest enough support for such a plan to have it implemented either by federal or state action.

A small step toward a regional primary was taken last March when voters of three Southeastern states -- alabama, Florida, and Georgia -- went to the polls on the same day to express their presidential preferences.

Whether other groups of states move voluntarily in a similar direction toward same-day primaries could hinge in part on the measure of support from within the two major political parties.

The question seems "almost sure to come up," says a high-ranking party official, when members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) meet in Washington late next month to elect a new chairman.

It could be late spring or even beyond before there is a clear indication of whether the Democrats might support the regional primary concept or some alternative. Party rules give the DNC until late next year to come up with guidelines for the 1984 delegate selection process.

On the Republican side, the national committee has taken no position on the regional primary proposal, and there appears to be litle enthusiasm for the idea.

Although two-thirds of the states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had presidential primaries last year, there is considerable difference of opinion within the ranks of both parties as to whether others should be forced to switch to this setup or allowed to choose delegates through party caucuses.

At least one more regional primary, however, may be on the way -- in New England. A key to such a joint vote is a measure before Maine legislators that would replace the state's two-tiered delegate-selection process -- town-by- town caucuses followed by a statewide party convention -- with a presidential primary.

Maine would join Massachusetts and Vermont, and quite possibly Connecticut and Rhode Island, in holding presidential primaries on the same date.

New Hampshire law requires that the Granite State primary be held a week before that of any other state.

Advocates hold that regional primaries would help shorten the preconvention presidential campaign and enable candidates to focus their efforts in one section of the nation at a time, rather than having to hopscotch back and forth to hit primaries on scattered dates.

Critics warn that regional primaries would tend to lessen the importance of some states, since candidates would be inclined to focus prime, if not exclusive , attention on the states with the most convention votes at stake.

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