North Carolina’s presidential preference primary would be held March 8, 2016, under House Bill 457, filed by Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, in a move intended to prevent the state from losing delegates in the presidential nominating process.
H.B. 457 would schedule the state’s presidential preference primary on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. An election law passed in 2013 set the presidential primary on the first Tuesday after South Carolina holds its primary, which takes place on a Saturday. If the date for that primary is Feb. 13 or Feb. 20, North Carolina’s primary also would take place in February, violating parameters set by the national Republican and Democratic parties.
Claude Pope, state GOP chairman, said the Republican National Committee would penalize North Carolina for holding a February primary. The RNC has said it would slash the delegates from the state of any primary or delegate-selecting caucus held before March 1 that did not get party approval — and last year, the RNC carved out spots in February 2016 for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties hope to prevent a recurrence of the jockeying among the states that took place in 2012 and are vowing to yank delegates from states that try to leapfrog the “first four.”
Pope said the RNC would reduce North Carolina’s GOP delegation from 72 to 12 if the primary remained in February.
At full strength, Pope said, “North Carolina’s delegation [would] be the sixth largest delegation at the national convention in 2016. We’re one of the top tier states.”
North Carolina would get the boost because, in addition to its population, the party awards extra delegates to states with Republican governors, U.S. senators, U.S. representatives, and control of state legislative chambers, he said.
“You get bonus delegates for winning,” Pope said.
Even with the national focus on a primary in neighboring South Carolina, if the Tar Heel State had only 12 delegates at stake, he said, presidential contenders would not campaign in North Carolina.
Some supporters of the move to February believed that the historic changes that have taken place in North Carolina would persuade the RNC to waive the rules and keep the delegation intact.
But Pope said that wouldn’t be the case.
“They’re not going to change the rules for us,” Pope said. He said if the primary date had been set by a Democratic legislature, then the RNC might have considered a waiver. But since a Republican General Assembly set the date, the national party would not make an exception.
In recent election cycles, North Carolina has held its presidential preference primary in May, alongside primaries for other statewide and local offices. However, in 2013, the General Assembly scheduled the presidential primary a week following South Carolina’s primary. The change was a part of a broad election law that included a requirement for voters to provide a state-issued photo ID at the polls, a 10-day (rather than 17-day) early voting period, and the elimination of same-day registration during early voting.
Pope said he would like to see North Carolina’s other primaries combined with the presidential primary so that the state would not be asking voters to go to the polls in both March and May (and perhaps in July, if runoff elections were needed).
Holding a separate presidential preference primary is costly, and county governments foot the bill for local elections. Counties spent about $2.9 million on the second primary in 2012, according to figures given by local boards to the State Board of Elections. The cost of a separate presidential primary next year may be comparable.
Josh Lawson, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the state board currently interprets the law to suggest that county election boards would have to offer the same access to early voting in the 2016 presidential primary as they did during the 2012 primary — including evening and weekend hours over the 10-day period.
“That is the present read,” Lawson said. “We would welcome clarification if that is not the intent.”
Meantime, a number of Southern states are discussing the creation of a March 1 “SEC primary” involving states with universities in the Southeastern Conference, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.
Florida’s winner-take-all primary is set for March 15, which would fall a week after North Carolina’s contest if Lewis’ bill were adopted.
Representatives of the state Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.