Saturday, May 4, 2013

2016 Florida Presidential Primary: Out of January, But Confined to March?

Sine die day 2013 in the Florida legislature was a typical last legislative day of the session in that there was the usual hustle and bustle of pushing some measures -- often complex -- through at the last minute. Late Friday in Tallahassee that included an omnibus elections reform bill that ultimately included a provision altering the dynamics of the Sunshine state presidential primary.

Early reports out of the capital (see Miami Herald) seem to have misinterpreted both the practical application of the bill and its implications (...likely or otherwise). First, here are the changes deeply nestled in an amendment to HB 7013 [scroll down to line 1005 on p. 37]:
Each political party other than a minor political party shall, at the presidential preference primary, elect one person to be the party's candidate for nomination for President of the United States or select delegates to the party's national nominating convention, as provided by party rule. The presidential preference primary shall be held in each year the number of which is a multiple of 4 on the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty. Any party rule directing the vote of delegates at a national nominating convention shall reasonably reflect the results of the presidential preference primary, if one is held.
FHQ will spare everyone a cut and paste of the struck through portions of the original bill that were changed, but I do want to drive home one very important point about the transition called for in the above legislation: The changes to this bill did not and do not eliminate (or nix) the early presidential primary in Florida. The changes made to the election law two years ago already accomplished that, or at the very least provided for the possibility of that (impermanent) outcome. The law, as altered in 2011, laid the groundwork for a handpicked committee -- the Presidential Preference Primary Date Selection Committee (PPPDSC) -- to select (by the end of September) the date on which the Florida presidential primary would occur in the following (presidential) year.

But that committee had a fair amount of leeway in making its decision. The bill signed into law in 2011 gave the PPPDSC the ability to set the date of the presidential primary as early as the first Tuesday in January and as late as the first Tuesday in March. That is different from the 2007 bill that changed the law to permanently position the Florida primary on the last Tuesday in January on the calendar. Though the PPPDSC opted to schedule the 2012 Florida primary for the same date (as called for in that 2007 law), the mechanism by which that occurred was different.

The changes pushed through in the amended HB 7013 yesterday did not eliminate the early presidential primary; it eliminated the ability of Florida -- through the decision-making force of the PPPDSC -- to be more adaptive in selecting a perceived advantageous calendar position. It eliminated those options.

The curious thing is that this maneuver was not even necessary. If the presumed landing spot for the Sunshine state presidential primary in 2016 is the first Tuesday in March (more on this in a moment), then that was already an option under the law enacted in 2011. One could argue that the legislature was leaving it to chance that the PPPDSC would opt in late 2015 to select a date for the primary that would be non-compliant with at least one of the national parties' sets of delegate selection rules. That is true but it is difficult to fathom a scenario in which a group -- the PPPDSC -- selected by the governor, president of the state Senate and speaker of the state House would go rogue. The whole issue throughout 2011 in Florida was that the unwritten mission of the committee was to do just that: go rogue. But that was the guidance the majority Republican group had gotten from the legislature, the governor and the Republican Party of Florida. It was not to go rogue (with the scheduling of the primary) so much as it was to make the Florida primary relevant/decisive to the Republican nomination race. Again, it is hard to imagine a scenario where a hypothetical PPPDSC put together in 2015 would set a date that would conflict with a calendar position that those very same guidance-providing interests desire. If the state party, governor and legislative leaders wanted a "later" date, they would place individuals on the committee who would support such a move.

In that regard, this change is a needless one. It was not necessary. It certainly was not necessary given the justification that was circulated: that Florida was going to get hammered with penalties from both national parties. Nothing in the current Florida elections law painted the state into any corner as far as delegates or delegate penalties were concerned. As long as the window provided to the PPPDSC by law included January and February, the possibility of facing the super penalty on the Republican side was always present. That is, present but not assured.

As for the Democrats, well, there are no DNC delegate selection rules for 2016 yet, so the Miami Herald reporting that those sanctions would be worse than the Republican penalties is wrong [WRONG, WRONG, WRONG]. It is factually inaccurate to state that "none of the Democrats' delegates would count in 2016, nor did they in 2008". Again, there are no 2016 delegate selection rules for the Democratic nomination as of now. And on top of that, Florida's delegates "counted" in 2008. The Democratic Party in Florida sent a full delegation with full voting rights to the convention in Denver that year. There was a period between late summer 2007 and the 2008 convention where Florida Democrats lost half their delegates, then all their delegates, then gained back half again (told comedically here) before gaining them all back for the convention. Those delegate slots did not count during primary season, but the delegates selected did count at the convention. [Here's a full timeline.]

Finally, FHQ wants to talk a little about the language of this bill and what means for where Florida will end up on the 2016 calendar. The presumption is that the "first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty" means the first Tuesday in March (March 1, 2016). I do not think that is the case. That is the highest probability landing spot, but it is by no means the only possibility. There are a couple of reasons why that is the case.

First of all, and to repeat an earlier point, there are no Democratic rules at this point. The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee may or may not continue with the first Tuesday in March as the earliest point that non-carve-out states can hold delegate selection events. That is an unknown right now, but FHQ is on record as saying that there is at this point little expectation for big changes on the Democratic side of the equation.

The second reason that it is anything but clear that the first Tuesday in March is the definitive calendar position for the Florida presidential primary is because of a semantic double whammy. For starters, it is an open question as to what constitutes the earliest calendar position without penalty on the Republican side. States can hold, as Michigan is seemingly going to do in 2016, a contest as early as the last Tuesday in February without penalty. With a shift in the method of delegate allocation, Florida Republicans could match that position. Secondly, the change in language in the Florida law does not require agreement between the major political parties on the issue of the earliest point at which states can hold primaries and caucuses. Without that sort of requirement, there are two ways of reading the proposed (It still requires the signature of the governor to be enacted.) law. Either...
  1. As it is being widely interpreted at the moment, that is the first Tuesday where both national parties' rules are congruent with respect to the earliest allowed date. In other words, even though under certain circumstances the RNC allows for an unpenalized, non-carve-out contest as early as the last Tuesday in February, the Florida law requires the penalty-less window to be open in both parties before the primary can be held. ...or...
  2. The other interpretation is the law is suggesting that when looking at both sets of major political party delegate selection rules, the state can hold a primary at the earliest point allowed by either parties' rules. 
It is not clear which is correct, which is why FHQ is of the opinion that the Florida legislature will revisit this segment of the law (if signed) in future sessions. The first interpretation begs for the addition of a both whereas the second interpretation seemingly requires an either. Either way, one or the other will need to be inserted in the law at some point for clarity.

Now, there are a couple of caveats to add to that second interpretation. One is that one must assume that the RNC will stick with their rules and penalties are currently constructed. Again, it is open as to what constitutes the earliest date on which a contest could be held without penalty in the Republican rules. If that last Tuesday in February/first Tuesday in March loophole is left unchanged, then that may cause problems for the legally constructed scheduling of the Florida primary. Of course, that leads into the second and largest caveat. Much of this depends on what the Republican Party of Florida wants to do with its method of delegate allocation. FHQ has argued that under certain circumstances, Florida could abandon a non-compliant true winner-take-all method of delegate allocation in favor of a compliant hybrid method with an element of proportionality and still maintain or improve the state's influence over the Republican nomination process (as measured by the resulting margin of candidate delegates). The RPOF could make that switch and complicate matters and the application of this law by making the last Tuesday in February the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty. However, that point is moot if RPOF scraps that idea and maintains a true winner-take-all formula.

Of course, the catch is that Florida Republicans -- if avoiding sanction is the goal -- are going to have to make some sort of change to their method of allocation, otherwise the delegation will be reduced by half (depending on the fate of the may/shall question). The party may be comfortable with that penalty as it has proven over the last two cycles, but if unnecessary changes are being made to state election law based on the threat of a super penalty that may never have been triggered by the Florida primary, then who knows?

The big winners in yesterday's maneuvering in Tallahassee were the national parties and the carve-out states; especially South Carolina (which has had to push forward the last two cycles because of Florida to maintain its first in the South status). Overall, chaos was reduced to some extent for the front of the calendar. Yet, in Florida questions remain as to the true nature of this bill. Chaos, or more appropriately, uncertainty were increased on the state level. For the last two presidential election cycles, Florida has been a perfect example of the limitations of parties policing themselves on issues like the presidential nomination process. This case is different, but continues to demonstrate how the different party interests  -- national parties, state parties, parties-in-state-governments -- interact with each other to accomplish that policing goal. In this instance, one can talk about policing being accomplished rather than it not being accomplished.

That is a welcomed development to the presidential nomination process. But it never had to be just Florida. All it takes is one state to be able and willing to challenge the national party rules. As the 2016 presidential nomination race continues -- yes, continues -- it will be interesting to see if any other state takes up the mantle.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It looks this amendment abolishes the PPPDSC. Also the dates of various deadlines for the Preference primary are moved back approximately 1 month. This seems to support the idea of moving back one month which could fall on either the last week in February or the first week in March.

Also with Florida seemingly blinking, could this encourage the RNC to re-impose all the penalties?
Florida has been the worst offender over the last couple of cycles and if they are willing to buckle then the figuring goes that no one else will do it.