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Bill Gardner, guardian of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, says he won’t set early state’s date until late next year.
California’s newly instituted March 3 primary date is rattling the early presidential state map, as Democratic state and party officials grapple with the shadow cast by the nation’s most populous state.
The idea that millions of absentee and mail-in votes could be cast in advance of California’s actual primary election day — and the prospect that presidential candidates might bypass the early states entirely to concentrate on target-rich California — is finally beginning to sink in.
Bill Gardner, the longtime secretary of state who has the legal authority to set the New Hampshire primary election date, told POLITICO he doesn’t plan to set the date for the nation’s first presidential primary until the fall, when he will better understand the potential impact of California’s early voting and determine whether other state legislatures have attempted to infringe on the Granite State’s first position.
While the schedule set forth by the Democratic National Committee has New Hampshire’s primary slated for Feb. 11, 2020, Gardner raised the prospect that the date could change.
“Not the case,” said Gardner, referring to the Feb. 11 date. “I haven’t set the date. I’ll set the date, most likely, next fall.”
Was it possible that he could set the nominating contest as early as December 2019? Gardner called that speculative, but wouldn’t rule it out.
“Well, the law, and the circumstances could require that. The law says it can be in the year of the election or the year before,” he said. “The law provides a great deal of flexibility in order to preserve the tradition of the primary.”
Long the guardian of New Hampshire’s role as the first-in-the-nation primary, Gardner says he’s waited as late as Dec. 21 before setting the next year’s primary date.
California’s March 3 date doesn’t infringe on the New Hampshire statute requiring that it hold its presidential primary seven days before any other state’s primary. But the prospect of a massive early vote from California — absentee and early voting begin 29 days prior to primary election day — could be interpreted by Gardner as a violation of the spirit of New Hampshire’s law.
Gardner’s deliberations are being closely watched in Iowa, another state that zealously guards its special status. If Gardner were to move up his state’s primary date, it would remake the early-state calendar since Iowa requires its caucuses — currently set for Feb. 3, 2020 — to take place eight days ahead of New Hampshire.
The uncertainty lies with the candidates and whether they will shift their time and resources to California and away from Iowa and New Hampshire, said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party who oversaw the 2008 Iowa caucuses and subsequent coordinated campaigns.
“If the candidates say, ‘It’s fine, New Hampshire is first, but California is just so delegate-rich we just can’t afford to spend time in New Hampshire, we have to be in California to win these delegates’ — and then they don’t go to Iowa or New Hampshire — then that would diminish the importance and likely make [Gardner] feel like he’s gotta make some kind of ruling.”
Sterzenbach, who’s now consulting with the state party on rule changes affecting the 2020 Iowa caucuses, said Iowa officials will likely start thinking of an alternate caucus date to prepare for a Gardner move.
“The challenge is, just like Bill Gardner said, sometime between September and December he’ll make a decision. The problem for us is we can’t just hold an election on a dime. We can’t do this in two weeks like he can, because we have to find caucus sites. They don’t have early voting in New Hampshire, which we do,” he said. “If he decided in December to hold his primary on Jan. 15, for example, we couldn’t pull off a caucus that quickly. We would be in kind of a lot of trouble at that point. We just wouldn’t logistically be able to do it.”
Gardner said he didn’t know enough specifics about California’s new process to say now whether it would affect New Hampshire, but he said he’d see California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in February and would talk to him then.
“I’ll have a chance to get from him exactly what they’re going to do,” said Gardner. “The thing is, this is pretty early. The legislative sessions will be after the first of the year. You never know what states might decide to do. In the past, some of them will make the decisions in the spring of the year before.”
Not everyone is convinced that California will have a dramatic impact — and certainly not enough to justify blowing up the calendar. Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link, who’s worked on presidential races in Iowa since 1988, said while there’s much talk about the matter, he views California’s early March primary as enhancing the importance of early states.
“I think the efficiency of doing well and generating momentum cannot be undervalued,” he said. “Iowa doesn’t often pick the nominee, but we narrow the field. That momentum of getting of getting a ticket out of the Iowa caucuses is going to be a prized possession.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and President Donald Trump
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Link also noted that while California mails out its ballots early on, many of those voters don’t return them until the weekend before the actual election day, leaving intact the traditional influence New Hampshire and Iowa results have on the race.
“I literally think people will be watching Iowa and New Hampshire [results] with those ballots sitting on their kitchen table,” he said.
Then there’s the question of when California’s results will actually come in: The state is notorious for its delays in vote counting and making election calls.
“The truth is if it’s a close race on March 3, we’re not going to know who wins California until sometime in April,” he said. “We didn’t know we picked up five [U.S. House] seats until end of November. It just takes a while for those mailed ballots to get in and get counted.”
Jaime Harrison, associate chair of the Democratic National Committee and a former South Carolina state party chair, said he doesn’t expect California will diminish his home state’s impact at all.
“A number of folks here have asked me about it, but I’m not nervous. At the end of the day, South Carolina’s still one of the four early states. It will have at least one of the debates. The candidates are already here in South Carolina doing things,” he said. “It’s going to be the gateway to the rest of the South coming into Super Tuesday.”
The national party does not view California’s early voting as a violation of the Democratic National Committee’s rules on primary timing, according to a DNC official. The official pointed to a history of big states holding early voting within the Iowa or New Hampshire windows, without a problem.
New Hampshire, however, isn’t so sure.
“Is early voting in California a legitimate concern? Perhaps. But those votes there will still not be announced until California election day, so it’s hard to see just what kind of effect this will have,” the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. “Stay well, Mr. Gardner. You are going to be needed.”