Friday, June 2, 2017

North Carolina Inches Toward Joining a Nascent SEC Primary for 2020

A North Carolina House committee advanced on June 1 a bill to further specify the date of the presidential primary election in the Tar Heel state. 

With no debate on the measure, the House Elections and Ethics Law Committee favorably reported SB 655 after testimony from the state Senate sponsor of the legislation. State Senator Andrew Brock (R-34th, Davie, Rowan) has over the last several election cycles introduced legislation to move the North Carolina presidential primary to an earlier and more influential position on the presidential primary calendar. However, those moves often fell flat. 

The legislative receptivity to a change in 2017, though, is different for at least two reasons. 

First, the omnibus elections legislation the newly Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly passed in 2013 altered the date of the primary for the first time since 1988. But the change was conditional. May was left as the default position unless the earliest South Carolina primary was scheduled for before March 15. 

The triggering of that condition was a near certainty. South Carolina in 2016 had at least a February position protected by the national parties and had not had a contest later than March 15 since Palmetto state Democrats convened for caucuses slightly later than that in 1984. And while there was certainty that South Carolina would pull North Carolina under the 2013 change into an earlier date, there was uncertainty over when the Tar Heel state contest would occur and whether that would invite delegate sanctions from the national parties (if too early).

It was that threat of penalties that ultimately forced the hand of North Carolina legislators in late 2015. It was then that the General Assembly set the date of the North Carolina primary for March 15, but only for the 2016 cycle. Following the expiration of that change, the North Carolina primary reverted to its traditional May date, but with the same problematic South Carolina tether added in 2013.

Together, the creation of the earlier primary and inefficient and circuitous route it took to March 15 provided the impetus for change in 2017. 2016 proved that North Carolina could pull off an earlier primary and also demonstrated the need for a more certain date. And that is what Sen. Brock and others are advocating.

SB 655 moved through the state Senate with little to no resistance, passing the upper chamber unanimously. Now, the bill has been pushed through the committee stage on the House side of the Capitol and is poised for a floor vote some time during the first full week of June.

That would, assuming a signature from Governor Roy Cooper (D), shift the North Carolina primary up -- two weeks relative to 2016 -- to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. The Tar Heel state would join a mostly southern line up of other states on the first sanctioned date of the 2020 calendar. Neighboring Tennessee and Virginia as well as Alabama, Texas and likely Georgia are also currently slated to hold contests then.

The test will be whether the calendar remains southern up front or if other states join the head of the queue.

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