Friday, February 27, 2015

Florida Bill to Clarify Presidential Primary Date Filed

Legislation has been filed in the Florida state Senate to schedule the presidential preference primary in the Sunshine state for the date that it would be scheduled on under current law anyway.

Sure, SB 7036, is probably unnecessary, but it is good legislation. It takes a more-confusing-than-necessary statute and simplifies it. As FHQ has said recently, the combination of the national party rules and Florida state law means that the decision on where the primary is on the 2016 presidential primary calendar hinges on the delegate allocation plan on which the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) settles. Let's look at the language of that state law and I'll explain why. Current state law regarding scheduling of the Florida presidential primary reads as follows:
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.
The first step in this is the national party penalties. Both the RNC and DNC prohibit non-carve-out states -- states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- from conducting delegate selection events before the first Tuesday in March. The RNC knocks medium and large states down to 12 delegates for violating that rule; the so-called super penalty. The DNC levies a 50% penalty for states breaking the rules on the timing of primaries and caucuses.

That combination would seem to indicate that "first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty" is March 1 for the 2016 cycle. However, the Republican National Committee layers in an additional penalty for states that defy the proportionality requirement affecting states with contests prior to March 15. States that fail adopt delegate allocation plans compliant with the RNC definition of proportional are docked 50% of their national convention delegates.

The second RNC penalty in essence shifts the date-setting decision to the RPOF. Given that the party has allocated its full allotment of delegates to the winners of the last two primaries and maintained a winner-take-all by congressional district allocation plan in presidential election cycles before that, it would appear that the actual "first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty" is March 15.

In fact, the chair of the party has signaled that the RPOF intends to keep the winner-take-all plan for 2016. That really pretty much settles the matter. If the party continues its recent practice of allocating its national convention delegates in a winner-take-all fashion, then the Florida presidential primary is scheduled for March 15.

But along comes SB 7036. The legislation would eliminate the "first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty" language and replace it with the far simpler "third Tuesday in March".

This is good legislation for a couple of reasons. First, it simplifies an overly and unnecessarily complex passage in the presidential preference primary statute. The intent in the 2013 law change was to make the Florida primary a bit more mobile. It made the primary scheduling contingent upon the national parties' rules/penalties. That was meant to account for whatever changes the RNC and DNC made to their rules and penalties in 2014, and keep the Florida primary at as early a calendar spot as possible. The national party rules were finalized in the summer of 2014 and the RPOF seems to be leaning toward a return to winner-take-all rules. Again, that seems to settle the primary scheduling matter. Why, then, is a change necessary?

Well, that brings us to the second reason this is good legislating out of the Sunshine state. Even though the national and state party rules are set and the Florida primary is seemingly set for March 15, there is still the matter of the October 1 deadline the RNC has for finalizing state delegate allocation plans. The RPOF could still change the method of allocation.1 This bill, if passed and signed into law, removes all doubt. That new law would add the sort of certainty to the scheduling of the Florida primary that has been lacking since the 2004 cycle (or at least since the 2007 date change).

Think about that for a bit. The Florida presidential primary has been a scheduling roller coaster for two consecutive cycles now. That isn't news, but state legislative changes to the primary law fueled an air of uncertainty around Florida in both 2008 and 2012. When the legislature in 2007 moved the Florida primary to the last Tuesday in January for 2008, it set in motion a messy chain of events. First, the DNC stripped Florida of all of its delegates to the national convention. That was followed by a Republican-controlled state government in Tallahassee not budging from its position; unfazed neither by increased DNC penalties that matter little to Republicans nor the 50% penalty the RNC levied. But all the while there were questions about whether the Florida primary would move or if the state parties would be forced to hold caucuses instead. Those questions remained until the January 29 Florida primary and even lingered afterwards.

During the 2012 cycle, things were different. The Florida legislature again changed the primary law, but did not set a date. Instead, the legislature ceded the date-setting decision to a committee made up of members chosen by the governor and the leadership in the state legislature. No, the primary was no longer set for the last Tuesday in January, but the formation of the committee had the effect of dragging out the decision on when the Florida primary would be until the fall of 2011. The benefits were clear. The committee was better able to get a lay of the primary calendar land in September than the state legislature would have been in a legislative session that would have ended in May. Florida gained flexibility in that move, but the overall process and formation of the 2012 presidential primary calendar -- the front end of it especially -- again had uncertainty hovering over it. The committee ultimately chose the date that the statute had called for before the law creating the date-setting committee was created, the last Tuesday in January.

Removing the now-unnecessary language from the current law and replacing it was a specific date removes all uncertainty from the equation. There would be no "wait on Florida Republicans to officially set their rules to determine the primary date" questions dogging the process from now until summer.

So, yeah. This legislation is as unnecessary as the creation of the Presidential Preference Primary Date Selection Committee turned out to be in 2011. But it has the opposite effect. It creates certainty rather than fueling a summer of uncertainty about what damage Florida might do to the intended primary calendar.2

NOTE: There is apparently similar legislation on the House side that will be considered next week.

UPDATE (3/2/15): House committee proposal passes committee
UPDATE (3/3/15): Senate bill passes committee

1 The Republican Party of Florida does not seem inclined to make a change to its delegate allocation plan.

2 The current law would pose no Florida danger since the it prevents the Florida primary from being scheduled on a date that would incur a penalty.

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