Thursday, February 28, 2013

Massachusetts Bill Would Shift Presidential Primary to June

Toward the end of January a pair or bills were introduced in the Massachusetts Assembly that would affect the timing of future primary elections if signed into law. The first -- H 574 -- would leave the presidential primary on the first Tuesday in March while moving the primaries for state and local offices back further away from (general) election day. The second bill -- H 575 -- would shift both the presidential primary and the primaries for state and local offices, consolidating the two on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June.

Let's consider the motivation behind the two legislative items.

H 574 is intended as a remedy to what was a messy attempt by the Massachusetts General Court to bring the Bay state's election law into compliance with the MOVE act. As you may or may not recall from some of the 2011 discussions in this space, the federal mandates laid forth in the MOVE act were put in place as a means of insuring that military and overseas personnel had timely access to ballots. The federal legislation required a 45 day window before election day for ballots to have been delivered. That meant that a primary scheduled seven weeks prior to the general election -- as was (and still is) the case in Massachusetts -- was not compliant. In order to move into compliance with the federal requirements, the Massachusetts legislature added, as a one time fix for 2012, an amendment to an appropriations bill to schedule the state primary for a Thursday just 47 days prior to the November election.1

This bill would codify a move to the ninth Tuesday before election day in November, an additional two weeks that is MOVE act compliant. That gives the Massachusetts secretary of state's office just four days following the primary to certify the results, print the general election ballots and send them off to military and other overseas personnel. Additionally, that date continues to conflict with the tail end of a long Labor Day weekend.

In other words, there are some potential problems attendant to this particular piece of legislation.

As an alternative, Representative James Dwyer (D-30th, Middlesex) has once again introduced legislation by request (via petition) to consolidate the two sets of primary elections in June. Again, H 575 would solve the MOVE act conflict by moving the state primary from September to June and the consolidation would additionally save money that would otherwise fund two separate elections, not one. The drawback is that the bill -- one almost exactly like the bill that Dwyer introduced in 20112 -- would potentially pull the Massachusetts presidential primary out of the window in which the nomination decisions are likely to be made. In any event, it would be something of gamble for Massachusetts legislators (and the governor) to move the contest that far back on the calendar.

But that is exactly what will be considered in the Joint Committee on Election Laws; the next stop for both of these bills. No hearings for either bill are on the committee agenda at this time.

NOTE: Please see the changes triggered by these bills to the 2016 presidential primary calendar here.

1 The Tuesday of that same week conflicted with both the Democratic National Convention and fell just a day after the Labor Day holiday.

2 The only difference in the section of the bill referring to the presidential primary -- or rather the proposed consolidated primary -- is that the latest legislation calls for the primary to be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June instead of the first Tuesday in June (as was the case in the 2011 bill).

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