Thursday, April 27, 2017

North Carolina Presidential Primary Bill Unanimously Passes State Senate

If one goes on headlines alone, then SB 655 passing the North Carolina state senate with no dissent is a rather mundane if not arcane legislative action. However, as is often the case, there is some nuance to what Tar Heel state legislators in the state's upper chamber accomplished.

The accomplishment?

The state senate passed legislation setting the date of a consolidated primary -- presidential, state and local primaries -- for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March.

Of course, the real value in this bill is certainty. By selecting a fixed date, legislators eliminated the atypical biennial rotation the North Carolina primary was stuck in after the passage of an omnibus elections law package in 2013. For much of the post-reform era -- 1972 to now -- North Carolina has had a consolidated primary election. And for much of that period, the Tar Heel state was rooted on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. Since the state concurrently held all of its primaries, the state enjoyed a smaller budgetary hit as compared to states with separated presidential and state/local primaries; two separate elections to fund. Granted, the trade-off was that North Carolina witnessed an increasing number of states shift to ever-earlier dates on the presidential primary calendar over the course of that period.

But the elections package the North Carolina General Assembly passed in 2013 altered that. First, it separated the presidential primary from the primaries for other offices and tethered it to the fluid, but protected early presidential primary calendar date of the South Carolina presidential primary.1 In other words, there was no North Carolina primary scheduled until there was a South Carolina primary scheduled.

Moreover, this was a provocative action on the part of Republicans holding unified control of not only the General Assembly but including the governor's mansion as well. Being tethered to the early, but unknown date of the South Carolina primary meant that the newly separate North Carolina presidential primary would run afoul of national party rules governing the timing of presidential primaries and caucuses. The severe delegate penalties the state potentially faced in that too early primary forced legislators back into action in 2015. To avoid those penalties, North Carolina legislators settled on a couple of tweaks. The first was to set the date of the presidential primary for March 15, while the second was to reconsolidate all of the primaries (but in March).

However, that move was only temporary. It affected only the primaries in 2016. That sunset provision expired at the end of the year and the primaries reverted to their post-2013 state: a tethered North Carolina presidential primary and May primaries for other offices. This is a messy, irregular manner in which to schedule and conduct elections. The practical effect since the 2013 changes has been to have the other primaries in May during midterm years and in flux during presidential years due to the statute's treatment of the presidential primary. If it is unknown when the presidential primary will be under current law, then there will be uncertainty as to whether there will be a move later to reconsolidate the primaries on an earlier date.

Again, this is complicated.

But state Senator Andrew Brock's (R-34th, Davie, Rowan) SB 655 streamlines all of it. The bill proposes shifting up the date of the primaries for other offices by two months in all even years (covering presidential and midterm years) and consolidates the presidential primary with them every four years. Further, the legislation would remove the Tar Heel state from the list of potential troublemakers for 2020. The national parties would have no need penalize North Carolina if its primary was scheduled on the earliest date allowed under the rules in both parties.2

More importantly, perhaps, the change would align the North Carolina presidential primary with primaries in neighboring states (Tennessee, Virginia and likely Georgia). Alabama and Texas also have primaries scheduled for that date at this time. All were part of the first iteration of the SEC primary in 2016. Adding North Carolina would shift the delegates of the tenth most populous state -- a not insubstantial number of delegates -- into the fifth slot on the calendar. In 2016, that was a position on the calendar on which the 25% delegates allocated mark was passed.

Without passing too much judgment, this move to simplify the primary schedule is a win for elections administrators in the state as well as voters. And given the unanimity of support in the state Senate, legislators on some level see it that way too.


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1 The legislation and ultimately the law actually left the presidential primary in May unless South Carolina had a primary before March 15. Given the first in the South status the Palmetto state primary has enjoyed in both parties since 2006, it was a virtual certainty that that North Carolina provision would be triggered. And that would have the effect of shifting North Carolina to the Tuesday following the South Carolina primary.

2 It is still early in the 2020 cycle, but there is no indication that either party is looking to alter the basic primary calendar structure: carve-out states in February followed by all other states within a March to early June window.

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