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When’s the Best Time to Pick a President?

South Carolina will hold the first primary election but it isn't yet clear when the first five states' primaries will take place. Meanwhile, no one wants to run Seattle and redistricting never ends.

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When’s the Best Time to Pick a President?: Anyone with even passing familiarity with the presidential voting calendar knows the drill: Iowa goes first with its caucuses, then New Hampshire holds the first primary. Democrats are shaking up that old routine but, like a frustrated party planner, haven’t yet been able to agree on dates that will work for everyone.

President Biden last year decided it was time to abolish the tradition of letting New Hampshire take the lead. His clear preference was South Carolina, another early primary state that was essential to his nomination in 2020. The Democratic National Committee made the switch official on Saturday.

Under the new plan, New Hampshire would still be one of the first five states, but only if it makes ballot access easier, for example by expanding early voting and absentee voting. The state’s GOP-controlled Legislature doesn’t seem to have any interest in fulfilling the other party’s prerequisites. The same is true in Georgia, also a potential “first five” state. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger thinks it would be great to go early in 2028, just not in 2024. Last month, the relevant Democratic Party committee gave those states until June 3 to figure things out.

In the meantime, other states are looking for ways to move up in line. Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that would move the state’s primary to Feb. 27, which would make it the fifth state to hold a Democratic primary next year. The bill also changes the date for the Republican primary, so it’s hard to see how it can win the two-thirds supermajority needed in the state Senate for the law to take effect in time to move the date. (In Michigan, bills don’t take effect until 90 days after sessions end, unless passed by supermajorities.) Democrats won control of both Michigan legislative chambers last year, but only narrowly. Republicans won’t support the date change, because under their party’s rules, going that early would cost Michigan seven out of every eight of its convention delegates.

Michigan has been here before. Back in 2008, the state held its Democratic primary in January – way too early to satisfy DNC rules at the time. The state was threatened with the loss of its delegates, but by the time the party’s convention was held, Barack Obama’s nomination was assured, so the party let the Michiganders vote anyway.

Something similar might play out in New Hampshire next year. Regardless of what happens in terms of scheduling the Democratic primary – and remember, New Hampshire state law requires that it goes first – Republicans will still be holding their first primary in the Granite State. New Hampshire Republicans are taking a definite “live free or die” approach to the question. “Joe Biden and the power brokers at the @DNC in Washington think New Hampshire’s time is up, but it’s not in our DNA to take orders from Washington,” tweeted Gov. Chris Sununu. “New Hampshire will be going first in 2024.”

The state’s relatively small number of delegates ultimately matter a lot less than the benefits of going first – intense media attention and increased economic activity, along with the chance to have an outsize influence on picking the eventual nominee. “Right now, it looks like New Hampshire has every intention of voting first anyway, and ignoring or disobeying the Democratic Party,” says Caitlin Jewitt, an elections scholar at Virginia Tech University. “If Republicans are having a competitive primary, it becomes much more challenging for the Democrats to get candidates to ignore the state.”

A half-dozen other states have pending legislation to move their primary dates, according to Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs a blog devoted to primary politics and maneuvering called Frontloading HQ. Those bills are far from passing at this point, but the question is how much it might matter this time around. Biden has given every indication that he intends to run again, despite his advanced age. He would face token primary opposition, if any. Therefore, no one will pay much attention to Democratic primary results, whether from the first, fifth, 10th or 50th state.

But – even if it still seems too early to be thinking about 2024 – a lot of the current activity might really be about 2028, says Georgetown University political scientist Hans Noel. “The Biden plan opened up the possibility for changes, which means now is a good time to act,” he says. “So states that want to be in a good position for 2028 might want to act now.”

Noel says such changes can be “sticky” and could still matter four years from now, but he also notes that the position of the party is that no state should maintain a permanent hold on the early slots. This means that, even if New Hampshire stands down and South Carolina leads the way, there’s no guarantee of greater cooperation among the states the next time around. “When President Biden announced the proposal, he also recommended that this be re-evaluated every four years,” Jewitt says. “This might be all for naught if Democrats take another look before 2028. Then they’d be creating all sorts of dissent and tension with states like New Hampshire and Iowa for no practical reason in 2024.”

No One Wants to Run Seattle: It was one of the superstar cities of 2010, adding roughly a quarter-million jobs and gaining about 130,000 residents, which represented a 20 percent bump in population. That much growth brought with it wealth but also problems, including severe congestion, high housing costs and homelessness. Like other cities, Seattle now faces the challenges of having a downtown that’s emptier than it was before the pandemic, and the city has been a particularly active forum for arguments about policing and safety.

On top of all this, local politicians know that whatever position they hold, they will take it from all sides – attacked both from the left and from what passes, by Seattle standards, for the right. A bunch of them, it seems, have had enough. Four of the seven members of the City Council who are up for re-election this year have decided not to run again. A fifth member of the council is exploring a run for county office.

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each is dissatisfied in his or her own way. But a sense that serving on the Seattle City Council is not such a fun gig seems to be the consensus. Aside from the city’s numerous political controversies, being threatened and harassed now unfortunately comes as part of the job description. The departing members have variously had rocks and human feces thrown at their homes. Council President Debora Juarez told the Seattle Times that she’s received “credible” threats. “I’m not seen as a person by some people and it’s not safe for me or my family,” she said. “No job is worth that.”

Seattle has already seen considerable leadership turnover. In 2021, Mayor Jenny Durkan decided not to run for a second term. Aside from the difficulties of running a city during the pandemic and the temporary occupation of a neighborhood by anti-police protesters, Durkan noted that she’d received death threats and had her home vandalized. Seattle has not re-elected any mayor since 2005.

The current wave of departures represents an opportunity for change. But of what sort? Progressives are hoping they’ll have a better chance this year running fresh faces. Kshama Sawant, one of the progressive council members who’s leaving, barely survived a recall attempt 14 months ago, taking just 50.38 percent of the vote.

By contrast, moderates believe they can now build on their momentum from 2021, when voters elected the centrists Bruce Harrell as mayor and Sara Nelson to the City Council, as well as Ann Davison, a – gasp! – Republican as city attorney. “What we saw in the elections last time is that voters want to elect leaders who want to make real headway on downtown recovery, homelessness and public safety,” says Kylie Rolf, vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association.

We’ll see who wins. But whoever ends up serving in Seattle’s City Hall should know going in that the job will not be easy.
Gerrymandering Protest 2019
Protesters attend a rally for "Fair Maps" on March 26, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/TNS)
Redistricting Never Ends: We are just one election into the current 10-year redistricting cycle, yet several states are already taking a look at redrawing their legislative maps. One or both chambers in Ohio, New York, North Carolina and Texas are going back to the drawing board.

Most are due to court rulings. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled repeatedly that maps violated prohibitions against partisan gerrymanders. It’s a long story, but in essence, legislators managed to run out the clock, convincing a federal court to let them use maps already found unconstitutional in order to conduct elections in a timely manner. Now, they “have” to draw maps again, but this presents them with an opportunity. The balance of power shifted on the state supreme court in last year’s election, meaning they can now probably be as partisan as they want.

In North Carolina, legislators are looking at reshaping the state Senate because the state has a supreme court that’s become more favorable to the GOP, thanks to last year’s election. Last week, the court announced it would reconsider voting rights cases that had been decided just weeks earlier by its own previous majority, including one that struck down the state Senate map as a partisan gerrymander.

“In North Carolina, they’re taking an advantage of the perception that there’s a more conservative court that might uphold a new map,” says Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

There was a time when mid-decade redistricting was common. After the Civil War, competition was so fierce between Democrats and Republicans that both parties deployed aggressive and frequent gerrymanders in pursuit of congressional power. “Between 1840 and 1900, there were only two years in which at least one state did not redistrict,” writes Erik J. Engstrom, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis.

In contemporary times, redrawing maps has been rare, absent demands from courts. Twenty years ago, Texas Republicans pushed through a partisan gerrymander in the U.S. House map, undoing a Democratic gerrymander ordered by courts. That action involved a lot of drama, including 11 Senate Democrats fleeing the state in order to prevent a quorum (an act their legislative descendants repeated in 2021 during a voting rights dispute).

Texas law requires redistricting plans to be passed in the first legislative session following completion of the census. Due to delays with the last census, that would be the current session. There’s a chance legislators will use this as an opportunity to gain further advantage. Republicans would like to make the one remaining competitive Senate seat, which a Democrat won in 2020, a lot less competitive. But that would mean fiddling with other seats, which is always politically hazardous because incumbents generally like to keep intact districts they’ve already won. Re-approving the current maps, passed during a special session, is the most likely scenario, says Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones. “For the House, I suspect it will be the same, since Republicans are happy with their districts and redrawing anything would just be an unnecessary source of tension within the GOP delegation and between Speaker Dade Phelan and Democrats,” Jones says.

There’s a cost, in other words, to tearing up maps and starting over again. Such costs, however, might sometimes be outweighed by the benefits.

“We live in a time of very existential politics, where people seem to feel like their party hanging onto power is a life and death matter, not just a temporary state of affairs that can be remedied by the next election,” Li says. “I think people will constantly look for opportunities to bring litigation or to force the redrawing of maps.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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