Tuesday, March 10, 2015

From Arkansas: A Separate Bill to Move All May Primaries to March

FHQ has held up Arkansas during this presidential election cycle as an example of a state facing a classic primary calendar dilemma. Arkansas has traditionally held a consolidated primary election in May. That includes a presidential primary and a congressional primary among others. The motivations for scheduling those elections are slightly different depending on the office. States, on the whole, tend to want earlier rather than later presidential primaries, but often also desire later rather than earlier primaries for the other offices. There is a competition among (some) states to position presidential primaries on the presidential primary calendar that does not exist for the primaries for other offices. Arkansas in not competing with New Hampshire to hold the first US senate primary, for instance.

Throughout the post-reform era, states have dealt with this issue differently. Some states -- mostly those with late primaries for other offices -- created separate and earlier presidential primaries right off the bat in 1972. They had to. A state like Florida could not hold a consolidated primary, including a presidential primary, in September because the state could not use the presidential primary to effectively allocated delegates to a national convention that would have already occurred during the summer months. To sequence it properly, then, Florida either had to abandon the late primary altogether and move the primary up to accommodate the presidential nomination process or create a separate presidential primary that could be scheduled earlier. Florida chose the latter. It incurred the start up costs for the separate presidential primary early and institutionalized the practice. In the process, Florida created a much more mobile presidential primary, one that could be moved around in an almost unfettered manner.

But contrast that scenario with that in a state like Arkansas. Following the reforms the Democratic National Committee instituted for the 1972 presidential election cycle, state government officials in Arkansas did not face the same issues that those in Florida did. Arkansas had a May primary for state and local offices. It was much easier to slap a presidential nomination line on the May primary ballot and have the presidential portion fit the sequence of the newly reformed presidential nomination process. The May primary preceded the national conventions.

Arkansas basically acted out of convenience and expediency. The Arkansas presidential primary and those in states like California and North Carolina that reacted to the reforms similarly became less adaptable in the process, however.  Whereas a state like Florida ripped the band-aid right off at the outset, states like Arkansas deferred on that decision. When the frontloading trend emerged, it was the group of states like Florida that initially drove it. The primaries in those states were more easily moved to different, earlier positions on the calendar.

States like Arkansas faced and still face in 2016 a different calculus. Decision makers in Arkansas have to decide whether to create and fund a separate and earlier presidential primary or to move everything up to an earlier date. Both have their own sets off costs that have more often than not deterred these late presidential primary states from budging from their May and June positions on the calendar. The separate election is expensive. But moving everything up creates longer general election campaigns for everyone from US Senate candidates to the state legislators --the ones actually making the decision to move -- themselves.

In the other two instances in which Arkansas has moved up -- 1988 and 2008 -- the decision was made to bite the bullet and fund a separate and earlier presidential primary election. And in both cases, the decision was made almost immediately after those elections to eliminate the separate presidential primary, thus moving it back to May.

And so it seems that Arkansas will attempt to repeat the first part of that practice for 2016. That is why FHQ the other day used Sen. Gary Stubblefield's SB 389 as a foil to the failed attempt in New Mexico to shift all of the primaries in the Land of Enchantment from June to March. Whereas New Mexico was making some effort to shift a consolidated primary up to March, Arkansas is attempting again to create a separate and earlier presidential primary.

However, it now looks as if the other option -- move a consolidated primary to March -- is now also on the table in the Arkansas state Senate. The same sponsor as the separate presidential primary bill, Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-6th, Branch), has now also introduced legislation to move all of the May primaries in Arkansas to the first Tuesday in March. It is unclear whether the bill -- SB 765 -- makes the initial legislation moot, but there are both House and Senate co-sponsors signed onto this new bill. The initial separate presidential primary bill still lists only Stubblefield and continues to be deferred in the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

There may be a preference among legislators about how the move takes place (which bill to pass), but the end goal is the same: move the Arkansas primary up to join with the other SEC primary states. And Arkansas continues to be a great illustration of the different decision-making calculus that actors in late and consolidated presidential primary states have as compared to other states.

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