Thursday, February 4, 2021

Montana Bill Would Shift Presidential Primary to March

With rare exception, Montana has conducted a consolidated primary -- including the presidential primary -- on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June throughout the post-reform era. 

The only times when that was not the case were in 1984, when state Democrats opted to hold March caucuses instead, and in 2008 when Treasure state Republicans had a February state convention. Other than those two instances, Montana delegate allocation in both parties has tended to stem from the June presidential primary.1

And it is additionally true that the Montana legislature has done little to alter the scheduling. It has not been common for legislators to introduce legislation shifting the primary date -- presidential or otherwise -- because 1) that entails a budgetary decision on creating a separate and earlier presidential primary or 2) moving the consolidated primary would mean moving the legislators own primaries (and increase the length of their campaigns if the date is earlier than June). [Unlike many other states, Montana's legislature only meets in odd numbered years, so a change in the primary date would not mean that legislator would be campaigning for the hypothetically earlier primary during the legislative session; something that has been a roadblock in other states.]

While other states surrounding the Treasure state have shifted their presidential primaries over the years, Montana just has not seen much activity to affect the same change there. Within the last decade there have been just two bills that would have made any change to the scheduling of the Montana presidential primary: 
1) a 2015 effort to move the primary to August (which would have made the presidential primary non-compliant), and...
2) 2013 legislation to consolidated the presidential (and other) primaries with school elections in May.

In the face of a bevy of post-reform efforts across the nation to frontload presidential primaries, then, Montana has resisted the urge to follow suit.

But as the process eases into the 2024 cycle, that may be changing. New legislation -- HB 248 -- introduced by Rep. Kelly Kortum (D-65th, Bozeman) would move the consolidated primary in the Treasure state up three months from June to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. That likely Super Tuesday date would align the Montana presidential primary with primaries from a host of states across the country with Utah as its likely closest neighbor. That would not be the earliest presidential nominating contest in Montana (That's the 2008 Republican convention.), but it would be the earliest primary election the Treasure has conducted. 

In the initial committee hearing for HB 248 on Tuesday, February 2, the State Administration heard arguments for and against the shift. Bill sponsor, Kelly Kortum made the case for the added economic benefit of an earlier primary, but failed when pressed to come up with anything more than abstract notions of candidate visits and spending in the state. Montana would be among the least delegate-rich states on Super Tuesday and would be hard-pressed to draw anything more than campaign spending on advertisements. Keaton Sunchild, director of Montana Native Vote, backed the bill citing the increased emphasis on rural, native and western voices in the process. But he was the only proponent of the legislation. 

Everything else during the hearing was a push back against the change from election administrators at all levels across the state. Dana Corson, the director of elections and voting services in the Montana secretary of state's office, balked at the date change and when it would be implemented. To do so for the 2022 cycle would put stress on a new voting system being put in place, but even had issues with the filing deadlines changes if implementation was pushed back to 2024. The latter was a refrain that was repeated by both Regina Plettenberg (county clerks of Montana) and Shantil Siaperas (Montana Association of Counties). Neither thought that moving filing deadlines and elections training into the holiday season to accommodate a March primary would be workable. But this is a common point of dissension among clerks and counties when similar primary bills are raised in other areas across the country. 

The committee will later consider a recommendation to pass (or not) to the House floor. Early indications are that there was neither a solid and persuasive argument for the change, nor enthusiasm on the committee for the change. But that is not atypical this early in a presidential election cycle. That urgency may be there in two years time. 

A link to this legislation has been added to the 2024 FHQ presidential primary calendar.

1 For a number of post-reform cycles, the Republican presidential primary in Montana was a beauty contest and treated as merely advisory to the delegate selection/allocation that would take place at a subsequent state convention.

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