Thursday, February 14, 2013

Election Law Amendments Would Clarify Funding of Utah Presidential Primary

A bill that has made its way through both houses of the Utah legislature would amend the Beehive state election laws with some interesting implications for the presidential primary there in 2016 and beyond. HB 53, introduced by Representative Kraig Powell (R-54th, Heber City), adds a rather simple clause to the segment of the Utah Elections Code concerning the Western States Presidential Primary:1
20A-1-201.5. Primary election dates.
(3) [TheIf the Legislature makes an appropriation for a Western States Presidential Primary election, the Western States Presidential Primary election shall be held throughout the state on the first Tuesday in February in the year in which a presidential election will be held.2
Now, ordinarily FHQ would leave this alone, but as I said this does have some impact on the potential 2016 Utah presidential primary. And it also happens that FHQ received some probably-deserved flak from the Utah press in 2011 for raising the specter of Utah crashing the 2012 presidential primary calendar. The conflict then was over the fact that while the statute called for what would have been a non-compliant February primary, the state legislature also had to appropriate money for the primary to be conducted. The legislature did not appropriate those funds for a 2012 primary during its consideration of that year's budget during the 2011 session.

But it appears that Utah legislators felt at least some need to clarify that funding mechanism in the elections law of the state. The February primary date is now clearly dependent upon the legislature appropriating funds for that purpose.

That brings us back around to 2016. What is interesting is that given the current Utah Elections Code and given the current RNC and DNC rules for delegate selection in 2016, Utah may have a tough time holding a compliant primary.


The RNC rules do and the DNC rules likely will prohibit February primaries or caucuses in states other than the four carve-out states. That would likely affect the willingness of Utah legislators to fund a would-be, non-compliant primary. Such an action would reduce the state's Republican delegation to 12 delegates and likely decrease the Democratic delegation by half. The catch is that even Utah's fallback -- using the fourth Tuesday in June primary for state and local offices for the presidential primary as well -- would also be non-compliant. The DNC has since relatively early on in the post-reform era -- 1980 cycle -- required that all delegate selection events be completed by the second Tuesday in June. The RNC has until 2016 not had any similar mandate. That will be different in 2016 unless the RNC changes its rules. There will now be a back end to the window of time in which states can hold the first step of their Republican delegate selection processes: the second Saturday in June.

Utah's fourth Tuesday in June primary would not be compliant for the purposes of selecting delegates to the national convention.

Granted, all of this is premature to a great degree. It is still 2013 after all. But something will have to change at the state-level if Utah is to hold a presidential primary in 2016. Absent such a change(s), both state parties could lean on the caucus/convention system that typically begins with neighborhood meetings in March of presidential election years.

1 The moniker "Western States Presidential Primary" was borne out of an unofficial compact that several smaller western and/or mountain states informally agreed to pursue as early as the 2000 cycle. The effort was not unlike the attempt by the Democratic Party to incentivize regional or subregional primary or caucuses clusters in 2012. The idea was that collectively a group of western or mountain states could influence the nomination process more so than if each state struck out on its own. The initial efforts in the 2000 cycle were disrupted by California moving its primary up to the first Tuesday in March; a shift that affected where each of the eight potential participating states would end up on the primary calendar that year (Busch 2000, p. 69). You can read more about the attempts to coordinate the western primary ahead of the 2008 cycle here.

2 The struck through portion of the legislation is the part being removed while the underlined portion is what would be new and different in the law assuming passage and a signature by the governor.

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