States Seek Savings or Relevance in Presidential Primaries

E-newsletter Issue #70 | May 26, 2011

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed likes the presidential primary. But this year, he recommended to Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state legislature’s budget writers to cancel the 2012 primary.

“Our budget situation is just horrible,” Reed said. “My office has absolutely been hammered.”

He’s lost 28 percent of his staff during the recession and, facing more budget cuts, opted for the quick cut of $10 million by eliminating the stand-alone election usually held in March.

But that doesn’t mean Washington won’t have a say in what candidates the political parties advance to the general election in November 2012. Historically, Washington has been a caucus state for the presidential process. In the early 1980s, however, some people by initiative got the signatures and support for a presidential primary process.

Even though Washington has held a presidential primary every four years since 1984—with the exception of 2004, when the state going through a mild recession—the national parties haven’t always used the primary as the sole decider for the convention delegates.

“To a degree and, in my opinion, very unfortunately, it’s ended up being more of a beauty contest … than a process where we actually have the impact of the public vote as to who they think ought to be nominated for president in a way that’s binding to the delegates,” said Reed.

The public interest is evident in the turnout. In the 2008 primary, more than 70,000 people participated in the two parties’ caucuses, while 1.4 million people voted in the presidential primaries.

“There’s no comparison between the two,” said Reed, who has fought any attempt to cancel the presidential primary in the past. “I think it’s ironic … that I was the one who advocated to not have the primary. It’s certainly an indicator of the times and just how bad the situation is.”

Washington isn’t the only state making changes to the 2012 presidential primary. Kansas is also toying with the idea of canceling the primary, according to Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor of political science specializing in campaigns and elections at Davidson College in North Carolina.

But Kansas hasn’t had a presidential primary election since 1992, Putnam said.

“It’s a financial thing,” he said. “Either states are considering moving (presidential primaries) back to consolidate with state and local office elections or, in extreme cases, cancelling them.”

Until this year, many states’ motivation was to move elections up to influence the party’s nominating process, Putnam said. That pushed many primaries in 2008 up into January and February. For the 2012 election, he said, the national Democratic and Republican parties set up a rules structure to push it back until at least March. Nearly two dozen states were forced to change their election laws to be in compliance with those rules.

But there are a few “rogue states,” as Putnam calls them. Florida, for example, seems poised to call the parties’ bluff by setting their primary before the party-sanctioned March dates, he said.

“There are some tangible benefits to holding an early primary,” Putnam said. Those include media coverage and visits by the candidates, which carry some economic benefits, he said. “After the fact, there are policy concessions that early states have gotten once a president takes office. The motivation over time has been to move up and have a say in the matter or don’t matter at all.”

That’s one reason for a change in Georgia’s election law, said Rep. Mark Hamilton, who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee in Georgia’s House of Representatives. He sponsored a bipartisan-backed bill to allow the secretary of state to set the date of the presidential primary.

Georgia was going to have to make a change anyway. It held the 2008 primary in February, and the national party rules stipulate that the presidential primary could be held only between the first Tuesday in March and the second Tuesday in June.

“We really felt like it was time for Georgia to be a little more relevant in the overall presidential preference process,” Hamilton said.

By allowing the secretary of state to set the date, Georgia could wait until the last possible date—Dec. 1—to schedule its election, he said.

“Our goal is to get the presidential candidates interested in the people in Georgia so they will want to participate in a vibrant campaign in Georgia, because we think Georgia has a lot to say over who the candidates are going to be,” Hamilton said.

The goal is not to lose delegates or be penalized by the national parties, he said. “It really is the flexibility it’s going to give us,” said Hamilton.

And long-term, he said, the Georgia legislature won’t have to come back every four years to pass legislation to set the presidential primary dates.

Georgia is the second state after New Hampshire to give its secretary of state the flexibility to schedule the presidential primary election. Secretary of State Brian Kemp must set the date 60 days ahead of time.

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