Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Slippery Slope in North Carolina Rogue Primary Coverage

There is one narrative that seems to be emerging in the coverage of the North Carolina presidential primary drama that is not necessarily true to the spirit of the legislative wrangling that brought the Tar Heel state into the crosshairs of the national parties. It goes something like this:
"Two years ago lawmakers decided to make the primary earlier - on the first Tuesday after South Carolina's, next February. State GOP Chairman Claude Pope now wants the primary moved to March 1st. He says the national Republican Party is threatening to take away delegates from North Carolina for the earlier primary."
Now, FHQ does not want to pick on WUNC's Jeff Tiberii. His piece is a short blog post -- and he is certainly not alone in this -- but it is representative of the direction some of the other media coverage on the North Carolina presidential primary situation is going. The implication is that decision-makers in North Carolina just cannot make up their minds. They were for an early presidential primary before they were against it.

Yes, legislators in Raleigh passed HB 589 in the summer of 2013. And yes, it moved the presidential primary out of May, tethering it to the likely February South Carolina primary. But decision-makers in North Carolina have not suddenly in 2015 found religion and awakened to the possibility of sanctions from the Republican National Committee.

Those penalties -- the so-called super penalty -- were in place coming out of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. And though the penalty was tweaked between that time and the summer of 2014 when the RNC finalized its delegate rules for 2016, how North Carolina would have been affected by the penalty -- assuming a rogue primary date -- never changed. Additionally, Rep. David Lewis (R-53rd, Harnett) was in the state House and was North Carolina Republicans' national committeeman representative on the RNC.1

Overall, though, this North Carolina dilemma is less a story of legislative indecision than it is a story of legislative process. The 2013 omnibus elections bill -- HB 589 -- originated in the North Carolina House. The version that passed the state House did not contain any language affecting the positioning of the North Carolina presidential primary. It was not until the bill got to the state Senate that the presidential primary provision was added.

There are two other important elements to this that help set the context in 2013. First, the bill was controversial and ladened with changes to the way elections would subsequently be conducted in North Carolina. Provisions cutting back on the number of days of early voting and requiring a photo ID were the big ticket items and received exponentially more scrutiny. The presidential primary portion of the lengthy bill was at best an afterthought. In combination with that was the timing of all of this. The state Senate committee substitute to the House-passed bill hit the floor of the Senate for consideration with the clock running out on the 2013 legislative session. Republicans in control of the legislature wanted to pass something and send some elections changes to the new-in-2013 Republican governor's desk to be signed into law.

Here is a situation, then, where you have a throwaway primary provision in a bill that is being considered in an environment in which legislators are rushing to pass something, anything to change up the elections system in North Carolina.

The state Senate passed the bill after 5PM on the final day of the session. The bill then went to the House, which had to either concur with the Senate changes -- including the presidential primary provision -- or tweak those changes and send the bill back to the Senate. Again, the House got this bill after 5PM on the last day of the session. To concur meant to go home. Amending the Senate changes, however, meant prolonging the process even further.

That was the decision the representatives in the state House faced. Agree and go home or change and keep at it into the night. They chose the former, passing the bill along party lines and calling it a session.

Again, this isn't a story about indecision. If anything this further extends the battle lines that are drawn between the North Carolina House and Senate. The state Senate added the primary provision in 2013 and is defending it now. Members in the House may or may not have wanted to go along with that at the time. Those in the House and the North Carolina Republican Party may regret that decision now, but that is not part of some flip-flop they have done on the scheduling of the North Carolina presidential primary.

1 How well known those RNC penalties were to legislators at the time of the bill's passage is an unknown in all of this. In the immediate aftermath of the bill being signed into law, some North Carolina senators were already defiant.

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