Explainer: How do parties set primary dates?

Politics

FILE – A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses on a downtown skywalk, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Even before President Joe Biden told Democrats his preference for reordering the presidential primary calendar, states began balking.

Officials in Iowa, the leadoff voting state for 40 years, noted a state law mandating that its caucuses take place at least eight days before any other nominating contest. In New Hampshire, the site of the first-in-the-nation primary for more than a century, a state law requires that its presidential primary be held first by at least a week.

Nonetheless, the Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm on Dec. 2 approved a revamped schedule for early votes for the 2024 presidential primary: first South Carolina, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, then Georgia and finally Michigan.

States can pass laws with the aim of telling other states what they can and cannot do, but such laws have no force. Any state could enact a law saying it must vote first — without it binding elsewhere.

So what happens if state law clashes with what national party leaders want on voting order? A state must change that law or run the risk that its delegates will not count toward the national nominating total.

WHY ALL THE CHANGES NOW?

The new calendar, awaiting approved by the full DNC, has been in the works for years. The party has long debated putting more diverse states in front of largely white states and moving away from the time-consuming and confusing caucus process.

What accelerated the changes was the debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

A new smartphone app designed to calculate and report results failed, leading to a telephone backlog that prevented the party from reporting final results for nearly a week after the contest. There were so many irregularities and inconsistencies in the reporting of the results that The Associated Press was unable to declare a winner, though Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is now Biden’s transportation secretary, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finished essentially tied for the lead.

Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire that year before going on to win the nomination after a dominant performance in South Carolina, the first state with a predominantly Black Democratic base. After that commanding victory, voters in other states followed suit, elevating Biden from a crowded field of candidates.

South Carolina’s vault into the first spot would put it in a premier position in 2024.

WHAT ARE THE STATES SAYING?

Iowa had been bracing for losing its leadoff slot ever since the 2020 caucus chaos.

Former Iowa Democratic Chair Scott Brennan, a member of the DNC committee that considered the 2024 calendar, voted against the changes to the order of states. He said they would “certainly favor front-runners and billionaire vanity candidates” by not including early-voting states in the center of the country.

New Hampshire’s delegation has long threatened to defy Democratic rules and hold its primary first anyway. A state law passed in the 1970s requires that its presidential primary be held first, laying out the purpose as to “protect the tradition of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary.” It also gives the secretary of state the exclusive power to set the primary date.

On news of the revised calendar plan, New Hampshire Democrats appeared ready to spurn the national party. “We will always hold the first in the nation primary, and this status is independent of the president’s proposal or any political organization,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan.

Nevada has been the first voting state in the West since 2008. Last year, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a law changing the contest from a party-run, in-person caucus to a government-run primary election, to be held on the first Tuesday in February in a presidential election year — or, for 2024, on Feb. 6.

While Nevada officials had hoped this would lead to the state’s holding the new first-in-the-nation status, it will still hold significant prominence, especially with early voting beginning on Jan. 27.

WHAT HAPPENS IF STATES DON’T GO ALONG WITH THE NATIONAL PARTY?

If states defy the DNC, there are a few possible penalties, including refusal to seat delegates at the national convention from any state that held its votes out of order.

That happened in 2008. Florida and Michigan held voting contests before their slots on both parties’ calendars. National Republicans banned half of the delegates from the states. Democrats removed both states’ delegates from the national convention, although the DNC ultimately voted to seat all of the delegates, awarding half a vote to each.

Four years later, states including Florida again scheduled their contests before the early window only then allocated to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina; all but Nevada moved their votes into January. National party leaders again penalized the rogue states by pulling half of their delegates.

The parties could penalize candidates directly, perhaps by denying them prime speaking slots at national conventions. But University of New Hampshire political scientist David Moore said he doubted that ramifications would be severe enough to keep states such as New Hampshire from defying the calendar.

“I don’t know right now how committed the Democratic Party is to penalizing Iowa and New Hampshire if they go rogue,” he said.

WHAT ABOUT THE REPUBLICANS?

The Republican National Committee has already decided to keep Iowa as the first contest on its presidential calendar. For months, potential GOP hopefuls have been making trips as the field begins to form.

RNC members also voted unanimously to keep New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in the early-voting window.

South Carolina’s parties, and not its lawmakers, set primary dates, so Democrats have no concern of their 2024 voting date being held up by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

No date has been set for Georgia’s GOP presidential preference primary in 2024.

Gabriel Sterling is a top official in the office of Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has sole responsibility for setting primary dates. Sterling said the agency “has been telling Democrats for over a year that we will do nothing that would require having two dates” for the parties’ primaries. He said that because of the national GOP’s calendar, holding Georgia’s Republican primary before March 1 “would cut their delegate count in half.”

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