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Democrats' new primary calendar isn't quite a done deal, as complications arise

Signs used for polling stations are seen in a bin at the El Paso County Courthouse during the presidential primary Texas on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Paul Ratje
AFP via Getty Images
Signs used for polling stations are seen in a bin at the El Paso County Courthouse during the presidential primary Texas on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

A newly proposed Democratic primary calendar that would end the 40-year tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire voting first is hitting a snag, though party officials are confident it can be overcome.

Two of the five states that would be in the new early window — Georgia and New Hampshire — are asking for an extension to try and meet the Democratic National Committee's requirements, two members of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee said.

"Hopefully there will be flexibility," said Jim Roosevelt, co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, of his colleagues. The committee is likely to meet and vote on granting the extensions in the coming weeks before a planned DNC-wide vote to approve or deny the new calendar at a meeting in Philadelphia in early February.

Roosevelt said the DNC has worked with other states in the past as long as they can show they are making their "best effort" and taking "provable, positive steps."

"We are moving with deliberate speed for a full DNC vote next month," said Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist, who is also a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee and a former acting chair of the DNC. "The train is leaving the station with South Carolina prepared to lead the way."

South Carolina, which President Biden pushed for being first after it propelled him to the nomination in 2020, said it could comply with the requirements and holding its primary Feb. 3, 2024. But it's not clear if or how Georgia and New Hampshire will overcome the obstacles — and if they can't, which states will vote first in the primary process.

The DNC is requiring that states — in addition to being able to hold the primary on the dates specified in a December proposal from the White House — implement voter access requirements, like expanding absentee voting.

But, depending on the state, that can require legislation and in places like Georgia and New Hampshire, Republican cooperation. Republicans control the state legislature and governorship in both states. New Hampshire's state Democratic Party chair and its two Democratic senators have publicly and vocally expressed their displeasure — not just with being demoted in the process, but with what they see as impossible-to-meet requirements.

New Hampshire's two senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, even skipped a White House congressional gala in protest. That is not to mention the New Hampshire state constitutional requirement that the state go first in the primary process.

"They approved this back before women had the right to vote, before Alaska and Hawaii were even considered states, before Black Americans had the right to vote because of Jim Crow laws across the country," Brazile said of the law, which went into effect in 1916.

"So, yeah, it is true that at the time they made this decision, you can imagine women were not at the table, nor were the vast majority of Americans. This is an opportunity for us to take a look at a new tradition."

For decades, New Hampshire's status as first was doggedly defended by Bill Gardner, the state's longtime secretary of state. Gardner retired last year after 45 years in office and as the longest-serving secretary of state in the country. So it's perhaps not coincidental that the attempted change is coming now.

The calendar shakeup, if implemented, would upend decades of Iowa and New Hampshire going first in the nominating process

Biden proposed doing away with the tradition, something many in the party see as overdue. Both states are overwhelmingly white, and not reflective of the growing Democratic Party's diversity, proponents say.

Biden's campaign for South Carolina, which some have been critical of, is partially because Black voters are prominently featured in the Democratic primary there.

South Carolina has no business going first.

In the 2008 primary, Barack Obama trailed Hillary Clinton in the polls in South Carolina by wide margins in the runup to the kickoff of the nominating voting. But his win in lily-white Iowa ironically led many Black voters in South Carolina to switch.

There wasn't a Black president before Obama and hasn't been one since, and many Black primary voters didn't believe Obama could win over enough white voters to win the presidency. With his Iowa victory, that changed, and Obama won South Carolina by huge margins, giving him momentum that took him through the rest of the long primary season and eventually to the nomination.

According to the new proposed calendar, Nevada, where Latinos are key, would go second along with New Hampshire on Feb. 6, 2024, followed then by Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan Feb. 27.

But Georgia's state party, like New Hampshire, does not control its primary date; the secretary of state's office does.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said while he does not want either party to be subjected to penalties, like losing delegates to their national conventions, he wants both parties' primaries to be held on the same date to minimize election administration costs. Republicans have already set their calendar.

Georgia also has a Republican governor and legislature, which angered voting-rights groups for passing a strict voting law, making it next-to-impossible to expand ballot access in a way Democrats want.

The other three states in the proposed early voting window — South Carolina, Michigan and Nevada — each said they will be able to meet the standards, but that's largely because the state party controls the processes in those states.

The political parties in South Carolina and Nevada control their primaries. And in Michigan, after the midterm elections, Democrats took control of the state Senate, giving Michigan Democrats control over the legislature and governorship.

Legislation that meets the DNC's requirements is expected to be put forth this month in the new Michigan legislative session, said Andrew Feldman, a consultant working on behalf of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Iowa, which botched its vote reporting in the 2020 caucuses, would be out of the early window completely.

"Well, on the one hand, Iowa has always been wonderful, civic participants of democracy," said Faiz Shakir, who was Bernie Sanders' campaign manager and is a DNC member as well.

He praised the civic engagement of Iowans, who take pride in the process and seem to revel in it despite the myriad campaign events, door knocking by volunteers and the deluge of TV ads.

"So Iowans have just been tremendous," Shakir added. "And I hope whoever comes next models the behaviors of Iowans, who really embrace being first in the nation. That said, they screwed up 2020, and they screwed up in a big way."

While he's in favor of shaking up the calendar to include different — and more diverse — states, Shakir is hotly critical of allowing South Carolina to go first.

"South Carolina has no business going first for a variety of reasons," he said. "It is a heavily anti-union state, heavily opposed to democratic values. You look at their war on women. You look at the very conservative nature of the culture of that place."

Despite a reputation for being a conservative state legislatively and in general elections, Black voters tend to make up 60% or more of the primary electorate there — and Black voters are a key voting bloc that any Democratic nominee needs to win over.

"If the question is, 'Do we respect Black voters?' " Shakir said, "there's a way to respect Black voters that is other than selecting South Carolina as the first state."

He pointed to the diverse populations in Michigan and Georgia as examples.

"If Georgia were to move first, it's a state with a higher Black population and a primary electorate state that's moving in the Democratic direction, it would make a lot of sense to consider them first," Shakir added, also noting the importance of Nevada because of its heavily Latino population.

For him, though, it comes down to general-election competitiveness.

"It makes a hell of a lot of sense to put battleground states at the front of the line because that courting of Democratic votes," Shakir said, "that voter outreach, that messaging to voters essentially becomes a years-long campaign for Democrats to win that state in the general election that we would need to win anyway."

The bottom line is we're giving campaigns and candidates an opportunity to meet voters from a very good cross-section of the American people. It's a good thing for America.

Brazile, who lived in Iowa as part of the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, said she had been in Iowa's corner in previous years — before the vote-counting debacle. She supports South Carolina now going first, but she wants to see a rotating group of early states and hopes whichever states come next implement the Iowa model.

"I do believe that any state can adapt to this type of rigorous examination of the candidates," she said. "I hope one day that my home state of Louisiana can adapt to the rigorous examination of these candidates. Just like we made Boudin sausage from scratch, I do believe that one day Louisiana will be able to have an opportunity to examine these candidates. ... The bottom line is we're giving campaigns and candidates an opportunity to meet voters from a very good cross-section of the American people. It's a good thing for America."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.