Of COURSE state primaries should be in August

Exaggerating as so many readers do, Rusty DePass (who probably agrees with editors far more often than he thinks) expressed shocked pleasure that he actually agreed with something in an editorial in The State on Sunday.

He was referring to this passage in an edit about the issue of all those candidates disqualified from running in the June primaries:

The Legislature has to fix this problem.

That won’t be easy, but it must be done. And with the primaries just five weeks away, it must be done immediately. It would be difficult to keep the elections on schedule even if every member of the Legislature agreed to a solution. That won’t happen, so part of the solution needs to be delaying the primaries, which we shouldn’t hold until August to begin with…

I assured Rusty that advocating August primaries is a long-standing position of the editorial board. It certainly is of mine.

And it is of Rusty’s. Rusty takes credit for the one time state primaries were held at a rational time in all the years since I moved home to South Carolina — 1992, when a lawsuit over reapportionment delayed the vote.

Rusty tells the story this way: As head of the state election commission (or was the past chairman at this point? I forget now), he wrote to the judge in the remap case asking that the primaries be delayed on account of the legal action. He recalls with satisfaction that all the lawyers he knew were shocked and appalled that he would so address such a view to the judge in the midst of a lawsuit. But the judge read the letter aloud from the bench and said, that’s just what we’ll do.

I had forgotten that part of the story, but I remember how gratifying it was to have the primaries thus separated from the legislative session for once.

Even back when we had loads of reporters and other resources, June primaries were extremely difficult for the newspaper — and other news organizations — to cover adequately. The people who covered legislative and other state elections were the very same people who covered the Legislature. The legislative session didn’t end until the first week in June, and didn’t really, really end until the sine die return session a couple of weeks later.

That lack of coverage, of course, benefited incumbents enormously, because there were fewer opportunities for lesser-known challengers to get their names in the paper. And name recognition is a huge part of the battle.

But the timing benefits incumbents in other, more direct, ways. The reason reporters are so extremely busy in those last weeks of the legislative session is because that’s when almost everything of consequence in the session happens. And those weeks happen to be after the filing deadline for the primaries.

So it is impossible for anyone to decide to run against an incumbent (except as that long shot of long shots, a write-in) on the basis of how that incumbent votes on the most important votes of the session. Aside from the fact that even if the challenger had already filed, he or she will get little coverage.

It’s an absolutely ridiculous problem, which would be completely fixed by always holding the primaries in August, as some other states do (including Tennessee, the “other state” whose politics I have the most experience with).

6 thoughts on “Of COURSE state primaries should be in August

  1. Phillip

    This is sort-of off-topic, but not really, because he talked about some of the structural problems that afflict our democracy (which, on a state level, you’re saying this election schedule represents): Bill Bradley was on NPR yesterday and I had really forgotten what a sensible guy he was. Worth a listen, at least the first part.

    I was wondering if we just have too many elections spread out too thinly here, if city, state, national elections bundled more compactly would that improve voter turnout? As much as we make fun of the French, 80% of their eligible electorate voted last week in their Presidential election and that’s a manifestation of democratic will at a level we can only dream of here in the USA, where we ooo-ed and ahh-ed at the 58% we hit in 2008. When it comes to state legislature races, or city elections (the laughable turnout for the city council races here) it’s even more pathetic.

  2. bud

    Too bad the only chance we get at this sensible reform is when judges force it to happen.

    Speaks volumes about the people we elect doesn’t it? And by association the people who vote.

  3. David Carlton

    Yes, August would indeed make sense. After all, it’s the laying-by month, when the cotton’s high enough that we don’t have to chop it, but the bolls haven’t opened yet, so we don’t have to pick it–oh wait. Really–August was when the primaries were held a century ago, because that was the month when farmers could leave the fields and go to revivals, stump meetings, etc. Interesting how well that fits with the newspaper calendar nowadays.

  4. Brad

    Well, not only that, but the Dog Days are also the slowest time of the year (traditionally) in news. Whereas May/June would be one of busiest, WITHOUT the primaries — at least for political writers in this capital city.


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