Tuesday, May 26, the Arkansas legislature convenes for the first special session of the 90th General Assembly. The agenda includes moving the 2016 primaries from March to May. Governor Asa Hutchinson has expressed his support for moving the Presidential Preferential and Preferential Primary Elections to March 1, 2016. Nicknamed the “SEC Primary,” the effort is popular in states that are also members of the Southeastern Conference.
Flashback to 2008, Arkansas had high hopes of relevance. The Presidential Preferential Primary was on February 5—Super Tuesday. I oversaw the Democratic Party of Arkansas’s delegate selection and candidate filing.
Arkansans Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee were on the ballot. Clinton won 70% and Huckabee won 60%. Neither were presidential nor vice presidential nominees. The nominees, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, garnered only 26% and 20% of the primary votes.
The two primaries should not be separate. Move one and you should move the other. Budget considerations are the strongest argument against splitting them. Voter turnout should be the other. In 2008, turnout for the Presidential Primary was nearly 35% (a 13% increase from 2004 when the primaries were unified.) The 2008 May Preferential Primary was historically low at 18%. In 2012, the primaries were again combined and held in May and voter participation was at 22%.
Republican Chairman Doyle Webb said that it “is important for Arkansans to contribute to who their nominee will be. Their votes will be more relevant in the nomination process, and in turn, more voters will feel like they are part of the process.”
If the primary is too late in the cycle it can feel like an exercise in civics rather than a real determinant to the nominating process. If a voter feels his/her vote matters, he/she may be more motivated to vote.
Voter apathy is rampant. I welcome all positive motivation to get more to vote. Sadly, I don’t expect Arkansas to play much of a role in the 2016 presidential campaigns other than fundraising and morale boosting for our two former Governor’s Mansion residents.
Webb reminded me that both national political parties have agreed on the early presidential states of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada. March 1, 2016 would be the earliest date any other state could hold a primary. Shortening the 2016 calendar further, the two national conventions are in July—much earlier than in previous cycles.
Democratic Party of Arkansas Executive Director Candace Martin views the issue in a very different way, noting the “few benefits to Arkansas Republicans’ agenda. The move would devastate state and local primary elections by holding them during a time when Arkansas’s weather can be harsh and unpredictable.”
This is where I break with my Democrats. I don’t consider moving the Arkansas primary to be a huge boon for the Republican Party of Arkansas or for Mike Huckabee. Incumbents may have an advantage with a shortened primary season, but incumbents may have advantages regardless.
Adjust the filing period and relevant deadlines accordingly and start the 2016 legislative fiscal session later. If the cost to change the election is minimal and voters have a renewed sense of relevancy and thus are more likely to vote, then why not? We can always change it for 2020. Until then S-E-C!