No Prize for Finishing Second? New Hampshire Law Change Helps Confirm “First-in-the-Nation” Primary

As the commentary of political pundits drifts beyond the subject of the 2010 midterm elections, and prospective candidates for the U.S. presidential election of 2012 begin strategizing for their impending campaigns, the legislators of New Hampshire have taken the opportunity to assert one clear priority: New Hampshire comes first!

In early 2010, New Hampshire lawmakers drafted an amendment to state election statutes inserting the following phrase into the chapter of the state code addressing the scheduling of presidential primary elections: “The purpose of this section is to protect the tradition of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary”. Formally known as HB 341, the amendment was signed into law earlier this summer by New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, putting national Democratic and Republican party organizers on notice as they draft their schedules for the forthcoming 2012 primary season.

Admittedly, the statute to which the amendment was enacted already provided that New Hampshire’s presidential primary was to precede by seven days any “similar election” in another state. That reality has been further complicated by the fact that the Iowa presidential caucuses have been treated as a traditional and longstanding exception, permitting Iowa to be the only state to lead New Hampshire, as it led by five days in 2008. But supporters argue that the reinforcing provision was necessary, insofar as states like Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan and Florida broke with custom in 2008, and with their own national party rules, to move their primary contest dates forward into the month of January. The coveted status that New Hampshire has garnered as the first “primary” of the season—including the national publicity and extensive campaigning of the major contenders in both parties—has thus inspired more populous electorates to challenge what they would consider to be the inordinate importance of the Granite State.

Yet, at a time when many have called for greater cooperation and bipartisanship on the political stage, New Hampshire’s primary status appears to be a cause that draws support from both sides of the aisle. The 2010 “first-in-the-nation” legislation passed both New Hampshire legislative houses without debate, and was speedily approved by a Democrat governor. And while visiting the state in support of Republican candidates for the 2010 midterm elections, no less a personage than the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, John McCain, was reported as pledging his full political support to ensure New Hampshire’s continued precedence in the primary calendar.

As predicted, however, New Hampshire will have to remain vigilant to preserve the very status which it has asserted for itself in the text of its election laws. The Democratic National Committee has already released its suggested schedule for the 2012 electoral season, and, although New Hampshire retains its place as the first primary, it is uncomfortably placed only four days prior to the Nevada caucus (February 14 and February 18, respectively). According to New Hampshire’s Democrat Secretary of State, Bill Gardner, that schedule is simply not sufficient. As the state’s new law makes clear, New Hampshire’s essential tradition must be protected by the requirement that the state primary precede all, save Iowa, by no less than seven days. In a state with the resounding motto of “Live Free or Die,” the unyielding words of Secretary Gardner could not be more plain: “When you give in once, when you appease once, you lose your longstanding tradition and you’ve got nothing.”

James Bernens is third-year student at William & Mary Law School

Permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2011/03/16/no-prize-for-finishing-second-new-hampshire-law-change-helps-confirm-%E2%80%9Cfirst-in-the-nation%E2%80%9D-primary/

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