Thursday, September 8, the Thursday after Labor Day, is the date of the state primary elections this year. The odd scheduling follows from a federal law that protects the right of citizens serving overseas to vote in national elections.
Given that most people expect to vote on Tuesdays, a great many will miss the Thursday vote. For future primaries, it is worth asking whether there is a better way to meet the requirements of the federal law.
While the Thursday primaries pertain only to state and district offices, the primary winners will be on the ballot in November along with the Presidential candidates. Under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (“MOVE”) enacted in 2009, if service men and women request absentee ballots more than 45 days before a federal election, then state and local officials are required to transmit them more than 45 days before the election.
That means, in turn, that the ballots must actually be printed more than 45 days before the election. The ballots can not be prepared and printed until the results of the primaries have been fully tabulated and finalized.
So, in practice, well over 45 days must be allowed between the primaries and national elections — which brings us to early September for the primary date. This year’s primaries could have been scheduled for the Tuesday right after Labor Day, but that would hardly be more desirable from a participation standpoint, and would mean that election staff would be working over Labor Day weekend to prepare.
So, Thursday, September 8, it is for this year’s primaries. For the future, what are the alternatives? As long as we are planning on September primaries, the new federal rules will frequently force non-Tuesday primaries depending on the November general election date and on when Labor Day and other holidays fall.
Broadly, the alternatives are to have the primaries at some point in the summer months, perhaps late August, or to have the primaries in late spring.
Most people want to pull back and focus more on their personal lives in the summer, even if they aren’t actually away at the beach. The volunteers who get involved in campaigns and help make people aware of elections have other things on their mind in August. So, August primaries would have very little visibility and would be decided by only a handful of voters.
The other alternative, having state primaries in early June, would elongate the general election cycle dramatically — increasing it from roughly two months to roughly five months. A lot of additional time and money would be spent, especially on the statewide campaigns. And, unless we moved all of the steps in the election process earlier, earlier primaries would mean less time available for primary campaigns.
The political consequences of changing the rules seem indeterminate. Some might argue that an elongated cycle would strengthen challengers to incumbents, but if challengers want to invest in a long campaign, they can start campaigning at any time, and some do start a year or or more before the primaries, especially for the state-wide offices.
I’d appreciate hearing people’s thoughts about which approach — spring Tuesday primaries, August Tuesday primaries, September primaries on varying weekdays (the current status quo), or some other schedule — is preferable.