Saturday, August 29, 2009

Defense Authorization Bill Amendment Could Affect Primary Timing

No, not presidential primaries ( least not directly).

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article about the trouble an amendment buried in this year's defense authorization bill is causing on the state level in New York. Now, this isn't unusual. National legislation, due to our federalist system, often has ramifications on the state and local level. However, this is a defense bill. Yes, that can affect funding for bases and through other means in the states, but this is about elections, specifically primary elections. Where's the connection?

Actually, New York senator, Chuck Schumer, added the amendment that could affect his home state and any other state with a primary election within 45 days of the general election.* The whole point of the amendment is to give military personnel outside of the country ample opportunity to vote, but it could end up causing some headaches for state legislatures and secretaries of state/boards of election in many September primary states.

In 2010, that list is comprised of:
New Hampshire
New York
Rhode Island
[Hmmm, all blue states and enough electoral votes to get you a third of the way to 270.]

Well, what's the big deal? Move the primaries to earlier dates, get the ballots printed and mailed out and be done with it, right? Ideally yes, but this is politics. It's never that easy.

A small move back into, say, August would mean that the elections would fall at a time when people are trying to fit vacations in before the schools start or just because the summer is coming to a close. That is the argument the Douglas Kellner, the co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections is making anyway. Honestly though, that is pretty weak. If August is so bad, then why are fourteen states holding their primaries or runoffs during the month (see above list link)? I understand the normative issues behind making it appear as if you are doing things that are supporting higher voter turnout, but even this Times article started off with the line, "It is hard enough to get New York voters to the polls for any September primary." As such, the Board of Elections just appears as if it is stalling.

But let's continue with that charade for a moment. Let's assume that vacationing and the "pressure put on the county boards of election" together are a big enough deal to eliminate August as an option in New York (and maybe even some other September states). What then? What are the options? The Times suggested a return to the June date the state's primary was held on until 1974. What are the pros and cons around a move to June?

The issue then is that such a large move potentially affects the calculus in the state legislature, where this change would have to be initiated and pushed through. Why? Well, the folks in the New York legislature all face primary elections every two years as well. The move could affect their fortunes. Antsy elections officials and antsy legislators. That isn't a recipe for change. Of course, neither is the fact that New York's state assembly has been a touch dysfunctional this session.

Another issue with a move to June is that the economy now comes into the picture. Matt from DemConWatch and I were discussing this in an email exchange earlier, and he speculated that this [a move to June] could put pressure on some of the September primary states to hold their presidential primaries and state and local primaries on the same date.

And it could from an economic standpoint. The whole reason some of the May and June presidential primary states have not frontloaded is because they hold all their primary contests at one time. That gives states with late primaries for state and local offices a huge advantage. Their primaries for those offices were after the end of the presidential primary window earlier on in the post-reform era, so they had to have separate contests. They were forced to fund that extra election (presidential primary) or move the other election up (and we see what a potential issue that can be). In the period between 1976 and 1996, in fact, I've found that those September primary (for state and local offices) states are seven times more likely to frontload their presidential primaries than those states where all the primaries are held concurrently. Once the election cycles through 2008 are included the effect decreases; those split primary states are only twice as likely to frontload once the hyper-frontloaded elections since 1996 are accounted for.

What does that have to do with the economy? Well, if the economy is still in poor shape heading into next year, then there may be some in these late primary states who call for the presidential primary and primaries for state and local offices to be held together as a cost-saving measure. "We're already talking about moving the other primaries, why not discuss the presidential one too?" But I just don't see that happening.

Let's look at that list of September primary states, but this time with their 2008 presidential primary dates and I'll show you why:
Delaware (2/5)
Hawaii (2/19)
Maryland (2/12)
Massachusetts (2/5)
Minnesota (2/5 - caucus)
New Hampshire (1/8)
New York (2/5)
Rhode Island (3/4)
Vermont (3/4)
Wisconsin (2/19)
With the exception of maybe Rhode Island and Vermont, I just don't see any motivation for those states to move their presidential primaries back to June. Rhode Island couldn't make February 5 work prior to 2008 and used to have a late presidential primary (prior to 1984) and Vermont held beauty contests and caucuses until 1992. Those two may be motivated to move, but few others are going to give up their early status unless forced to do so. And if both parties institute a "nothing before March except Iowa and New Hampshire (and maybe Nevada and South Carolina)" policy ahead of 2012, some of these states may be forced to reconsider their positions in the presidential primary calendar. But with decisions on the rules for 2012 coming after the point at which a state legislative decision to come into compliance with this bill (should it become law), I just don't see it happening.

As always, though, it will be fun to track.

*Well, that isn't entirely true. That's the way it reads in the Times article, though. The truth of the matter is that New York's September 14, 2010 primary election is outside that 45 day barrier in the provision. However, the issue isn't necessarily the timing as much as it is holding the primary so that the general election ballots can be printed and mailed off to those in the Armed Services prior to the 45 day barrier. The New York primary is seven weeks before the November 2 election and four days likely wouldn't be enough time to get those tasks done.

Hat tip to Matt at DemConWatch for the link to the New York Times piece.

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