Friday, June 21, 2019

Raffensperger Sets Georgia Presidential Primary Date for March 24

On Wednesday, June 19, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) set the date of the 2020 presidential primary in the Peach state for March 24.

It marks just the second time since the 1980 cycle that Georgia has not held a presidential primary on the earliest date allowed by the national parties to hold primaries and caucuses. [2004 was the other.]

But while that departure from what has more often than not been the Georgia primary's traditional position on the calendar is noteworthy, some of the maneuvering behind the scenes of the presidential primary date being set is as well.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Raffensperger earlier this week suggested that a final decision on the primary date would not be made until after new voting machines for the state had been purchased. But this continued delay has drawn the ire of some local elections officials across Georgia who wanted more certainty about when the presidential primary would be scheduled.

And that is not out of the ordinary for elections officials. They crave certainty and as far in advance of an election as possible.

However, what is interesting about this is that the Georgia presidential primary dates for both 2012 and 2016 were not set by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) until September in the years before both election years. Granted, Kemp telegraphed the date of the 2016 primary as early as 2014 when he began the push to coordinate the SEC primary, a cluster of southern state primaries on the first Tuesday in March. But the 2012 Georgia primary date was not set until the very end of September. And there was speculation even the week leading up to that decision in September 2011 about when the primary would be scheduled.

But there was no reported backlash from elected officials in either cycle (but especially 2011).

One might counter that the added uncertainty of the new voting machines may be driving this response from local elections administrators. Yet, in the quotes gathered from elections administrators by the AJC, it was not the machines that were cited as the complicating factor. Instead, reserving polling locations, potential complications with early/absentee voting, and ballot printing schedules were cited as the reasons for the response to the lack of a presidential primary date.

At least Raffensperger did not wait until the statutory deadline to set the date: December 1.

Why March 24?
Again, a late March date for the Georgia primary is unusual. Even in 2004, when last Georgia did not have a primary on the earliest date allowed by the national parties, the primary fell on the first Tuesday in March. The earliest allowed date that cycle was the first Tuesday in February. Georgia just did not move up into February with a handful of smaller states. That (move to February) did not happen until 2008 when, like the 2020 cycle, a lot of states were crowding onto the earliest date allowed.

March 24, then, is the latest a Georgia presidential primary has fallen on the calendar since the 1976 cycle that saw Georgian, Jimmy Carter, win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Why break from the norm?

Well, the AJC cites one reason: to maximize the influence. Historically, that has been the reasoning that led to a great deal of frontloading on the presidential primary calendar. As calendars became more crowded over time during the post-reform era, states continued to pile on to typically the earliest allowed date. But the calculus -- or perhaps the perception -- was different then. Maximizing influence meant holding a contest at a time on the calendar before the nomination race had resolved itself. And most states that opted to move reasoned that contests as early as possible guaranteed that influence. Even if it meant sharing a date on the calendar with 10 or 15 or 25 other states.

Better to share an early calendar spot and have some (diluted) influence than gamble with a later more isolated date that may fall after a presumptive nominee has emerged and have no influence.

But if the perception is that the nomination race may carry on a bit, then the date-setting calculus changes. Early dates continue to offer that same guarantee of some influence, but the gamble of a later date may not be as great.

Moreover, the 2011 change to Georgia law is an important piece to this puzzle. It was then that the Georgia legislature got out of the business of setting the presidential primary date and ceded that authority to the secretary of state. The biggest impact there was the timing of the decision. Whereas the Georgia General Assembly only had a window between January and early May of the year before a presidential election to make a decision on the primary date, the new law gave the secretary of state until December 1 of the year prior to the presidential election.

That January-May window can be a busy one not just internally for all the business of a state legislature, but externally for all the primary movement -- proposed or fully realized -- happening in state legislatures across the country. In other words, Georgia was always at a disadvantage because of its early legislative adjournment date. Georgia could move its primary only to see other states choose to join it on an early date, diluting the Peach state's influence on that date.

Allowing the secretary of state to make the date-setting decision and giving that office until December 1 to do that flips the tables in Georgia's favor. Now, instead of changing dates only to find later that it gets crowded, the Georgia secretary of state can wait, assess the state of any upcoming nomination race (particularly its potential longevity) and pick a position that most benefits the state.

So if it looks like a race with a large field of candidates may not winnow down to one before an open week fairly early in the calendar, then why not opt for that date? Well, that is exactly what Raffensperger has done. March 24 has been wide open on the calendar for a while now and at this late date is unlikely to see any other states reschedule for that date.

It is not a guarantee of influence, but if the nomination race continues to that point, then it could mean a great deal of influence.

Finally, there is one other factor that may have played a role in this decision other than the open date Georgia has seemingly secured for itself alone. It is something that FHQ mentioned back in January in a post about Republican state party rules changes for 2020 to help Trump:
If a state is viewed now as a strong Trump state in the nomination phase of the process, then why not move it to a point on the calendar where the number of Trump delegates could be maximized? Take Georgia. Traditionally the Peach state has been a Super Tuesday mainstay. And it may still be in 2020. However, the newly elected Republican secretary of state there may hear from the Trump campaign. So might the Georgia Republican Party. The former could set the date of the Georgia primary for some point after March 15 and that would allow the latter to set the allocation method for winner-take-all (without penalty).
Yes, the Democratic Party has the active nomination race, but that does not mean that there is not maneuvering on the Republican side. And Secretary Raffensperger is a Republican who may or may not be making this move to help Democrats in the state. He may instead be choosing a primary date that maximizes Georgia's influence on the Republican process, handing the president a guaranteed cache of delegates that may help the president secure the nomination more quickly through winner-take-all delegate allocation rules.

But that is a question for the Georgia Republican Party. It will have to make that decision before October 1.

The Georgia presidential primary date change has been added to the 2020 FHQ presidential primary calendar.

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