by Wendy Underhill
Presidential preference primaries are “primarily” in the portfolio of political parties.
That sentence draws attention twice: once because it rivals "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" as a tongue-twister, and again because it begs the question of who else, in addition to political parties, plays a role with primaries.
The answer is state legislatures, which decide if and when a state will hold (and pay for) a presidential primary. We’ve investigated how states make those decisions, and written about it in the November/December issue of The Canvass, NCSL’s elections newsletter.
In that newsletter we note that the National Association of Secretaries of State has a proposal for changing the current patchwork system to one based on rotating regional primaries; the proposal includes model legislation that states could adopt, although none have so far. NASS has recently released an easy-to-read calendar of primary dates, too.
For the nuts and bolts of the nominating process, we turned to two authoritative sources: Frontloading Headquarters, a well-documented blog devoted entirely to presidential primaries, and The Green Papers, a webpage with deep data on all things electoral.
While we defer to the expertise that these sites offer, NCSL is the keeper of data on primary-related legislation. Thinking that this year appeared to be a particularly tumultuous legislative year for primaries, we took a look back through the last two presidential cycles. Here are the data; they don’t necessarily support our hypothesis.
15 presidential primary bills were enacted in 2003, followed by 19 in 2007 and 21 in 2011. Is that an ever-increasing amount? I’m not so sure; perhaps these numbers represent a normal variation in pre-election year legislation.
The one thing that stands out this year is that several states took action based on financial considerations (in addition to political ones). Three states on our list--Alabama, California and New Jersey--combined their presidential primary with their state primary, in large part as a money-saving measure. And Washington chose to eliminate its primary altogether, also to save money.
The end result is lots of legislation, some cost savings, and still plenty of opportunities for voters to express their presidential preferences.