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NH state law for first-in-the-nation primary at odds with Democrats’ proposed schedule

  • A sticker that lost its jacket outside the polls at Hanover High School on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Concord Monitor
Published: 12/4/2022 12:03:17 AM
Modified: 12/4/2022 12:02:54 AM

If a tree falls in a forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This common philosophical question examines the nature of observation and perception.

Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, has a similar question — less about philosophy, more about politics, though.

“If New Hampshire holds a primary and no candidates show up, does the primary really matter?” he asked.

A new primary schedule set by a committee of Democrats calls for New Hampshire to go second in the nation, after South Carolina and simultaneously with Nevada. However, this decision puts state law at direct odds with party preferences to end the centurylong tradition of New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Administering the primary

New Hampshire law says the secretary of state shall set the presidential primary in New Hampshire at least seven days ahead of any other state’s primary. If the panel’s proposed schedule goes through as the panel proposed, South Carolina would hold its primary Feb. 3, 2024, and New Hampshire law would have Granite State voters here going to the polls in January 2024.

For Secretary of State David Scanlan, the law is clear about when the New Hampshire primary will be. The first-in-the-nation tradition will continue, as the law mandates, he affirmed.

But the official date of the primary, and its order respective to other states, won’t be set until late next year.

The date of the New Hampshire primary is set in the fall before the presidential primary, Scanlan said. This means no decisions about the precise day when Granite Staters will head to the polls will be final until then.

“We have a filing period as follows,” he said. “And then we hold the election just like we do any other election.”

The proposed schedule is an early, and important, indicator of how the Democratic party wants the primaries to go. But their proposal also is not final until the full Democratic National Committee gives approval, which is expected to come in January.

Former state Sen. Melanie Levesque doesn’t want to wait that long.

Levesque, a Democrat, is challenging Scanlan, a Republican, for the nonpartisan job of Secretary of State, which will be elected by the Legislature on Dec. 7.

“That gives us time to show them the importance of New Hampshire going first, not just for us, but for the nation,” she said.

The state’s close geography, the open ear of its citizens, the ability for any candidate to be taken seriously here, and even the state’s diversity are all reasons to keep New Hampshire first, Levesque said.

“I do believe we are a diverse state,” said Levesque, who is Black. “We are a lot smaller, but we are a very diverse state. We need to show that.”

New Hampshire’s lack of racial diversity has been a common argument from critics who advocate moving the primary behind other states, and the Democrats on the committee touted the increased influence Black voters would have if South Carolina went first.

The Granite State has the fourth-highest percentage of white residents, according to data from the 2020 census, at 87.2%.

New Hampshire can set its primary whenever it chooses, but penalties from the party — like stripping delegates or sanctioning candidates from national debates — could come into play if candidates participate in an election that doesn’t align with the Democrats’ schedule.

“We just have to wait and see what the landscape looks like, well into next year and what the penalties might be and then figure out how we protect our first-in-the-nation status,” said Scanlan, who is white.

“We are first by law,” Levesque said.

Tradition in question

The Democrats’ proposed schedule presents a series of hypothetical scenarios for Scala.

One is if the state follows suit with legal mandate to host the first primary, which could create a scenario in which the Democratic party does not send delegates or candidates to New Hampshire, in an attempt to influence the primary schedule.

“New Hampshire will hold its primary when it is going to hold its primary. The question is, will candidates choose to participate?” Scala said.

If Biden runs again in 2024, he would have no reason to come to the Granite State after he’s publicly called for South Carolina to go first, Scala said.

The second scenario is if the party and state host separate elections. This means that Republicans could vote on the state’s designated primary day, while Democrats wait for their party’s appointed primary.

This would also put the task of administering a primary election in the state party’s hands. This is an inflated hypothetical situation, Scala said — the chances of two primaries are slim, if not impossible.

“Two primaries gets awfully complicated,” he said. “The law is not set up for that.”

Changing a primary schedule, especially one that then contradicts state law, is a complex decision, Scala said.

“Before we all go writing the obituary, this is a really complicated machinery, the whole process. Once you start moving things around, you are not quite sure how the machine is going to work,” he said. “What Biden is proposing, these are drastic, drastic changes and sometimes when people start making drastic changes, there is always that law of unintended consequences that no one can foresee.”

It is also not the first threat to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status. But with Biden publicly leading the charge to change course, it is the most serious attack yet, Scala said.

“We haven’t seen the president of the United States weigh in the way that Biden is trying to weigh in. That to me puts this threat head and shoulders above others,” he said. “The Democratic party is there to serve the president of the United States and the president is enormously influential in his own party.”

Biden’s request signals a new identity for the Democratic party, with a larger emphasis on diversity among voters.

“We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window,” Biden wrote in a letter to the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

His recommendation to compromise New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status also shows that he has little allegiance to the state, after finishing fifth in the 2020 primary, Scala said.

“New Hampshire is in the unfortunate situation where Joe Biden owes New Hampshire absolutely nothing,” he said.

In a state where the tradition of a first-in-the-nation primary dates back to 1920, the Granite State could soon be left without an integral piece of its political identity when the primary schedule is solidified.

Scala compared it to the loss of the Old Man of the Mountain — not just a rock formation but a symbolic piece of the state’s character.

“The New Hampshire political landscape will be forever changed, like when the Old Man fell off the mountain,” he said. “The state moved on, but it is forever different.”

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