Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Michigan Senate Passes Bill Moving Presidential Primary to February

The Michigan State Senate on Tuesday passed SB 1207, a simple measure that would move the presidential primary in the state from the second Tuesday in March up to the second Tuesday in February.

While significant in the context of the pending changes the Democratic National Committee may make to the 2024 presidential primary calendar this week -- including a potential addition of Michigan to the early window -- this near-unanimous vote of the Republican-controlled Senate is likely symbolic.1 It was little more than a bipartisan show ahead of the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting starting on December 1. 

That is not to say that Michigan legislators are not serious about helping to ease the state's presidential primary to a more prime position on the calendar, but there are a few moving parts here that should be accounted for. 

First, the Senate vote comes in the waning days of the 2021-22 legislative session. Now, strange things can happen as sessions come to a close -- including the expedited consideration of legislation -- but there are just a handful of days left in the state House session. One day this week and three more next week are it.

Second, Sen. Wayne Schmidt's (R-37th) legislation was discharged from the Elections Committee on the same day it passed with no committee hearing preceding it since it was introduced in October. And simple though this bill may be -- it is a one page bill -- it is one that could benefit from increased scrutiny. For starters, elections officials might like to chime in, as they always do, on how the new date would affect filing deadlines and their general timeline for elections. And it is also worth noting that Republicans supported this bill but stand to lose a lot if the Michigan presidential primary ends up on the second Tuesday in February. A Republican primary in that position would violate Republican National Committee rules and decrease the Michigan delegation to the 2024 convention by more than three-quarters

Michigan may get a go-ahead from the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee to hold an earlier primary in their meeting this week, but there will be some Michigan-specific factors that will have to be considered in scheduling an early window primary. One option is to mirror what South Carolina does and hold those primaries on separate days. That is one avenue, but it would be an expensive one, and one that is not common among states with government-run primaries. South Carolina is the exception rather than the rule. Michigan is also a much bigger and more expensive state. 

Alternatively, Michigan Republicans could simply opt out of the presidential primary and conduct a primary or caucus on their own. But that is expensive as well and party coffers are tougher to fill than those of the state governments. Plus, that money is often better used elsewhere. Of course, the new Democratic unified government in the Great Lakes state could also force the hands of state Republicans by going with the mid-February date in SB 1207 anyway. That would force Republicans to forge ahead with the new date on the hopes that a waiver might successfully be won, or push them to a later and compliant caucus. And a waiver could work, although that would have implications for the scheduling of other early contests that the Republicans set in stone before 2016 (and have carried over in subsequent cycles). 

Granted, there is a third route that would work for all parties concerned. A loophole in RNC rules would allow for the Michigan primary to be scheduled as early as March 1 without penalty from the RNC. A Saturday, March 2 primary would fall in the early window on the Democratic calendar right before Super Tuesday and also be compliant -- or unpenalized -- under Republican rules. 

But that is a great deal to hash out, and typically states -- either governments or parties -- tend to wait until after the two major parties have finalized the rules before making decisions on when to schedule their primary elections or caucuses. Yes, that has typically been done by now in the process. The DNC is a little late this cycle. 

With that step in place after the early December DNCRBC meeting, the new Michigan legislature -- one controlled by Democrats -- will likely look to put its own stamp on whatever the DNC hands down in terms of overarching guidelines. 

But for now, this vote on SB 1207 was a show vote to demonstrate to national players that Michigan is ready to be early. And if one has followed along with the various calendar machinations over time, Michigan is not an unfamiliar character. 

1 Assistant Majority Caucus Chair Jim Rundestad (R-15th) was the lone dissenting vote. Two Democrats and one other Republican were excused.


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