Elections Government

Should The Spring Primary Election Be Earlier?

There is a movement to change the primary election date.

This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting.

By Carter Walker | Votebeat

A sign pointing to a polling place. File photo. Credit: Tom Sofield/NewtownPANow.com

A bill aiming to move up Pennsylvania’s position in the 2024 presidential primary calendar advanced out of a key committee in the state Senate this week, but officials say changing the date less than eight months before the election would present a host of logistical problems.

The Senate State Government Committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would move the primary up from April 23 to March 19, a change that would be effective only for next year’s election.

The current primary date conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Passover, and the three other states that had primaries scheduled for the same day have already moved their dates. Some observant Jews would be unable to vote in person on the holiday.

The effort to move the primary has strong bipartisan and bicameral support in Pennsylvania, but the exact date it would be moved to is unclear.

Counties, which administer elections, haven’t endorsed a specific date but have “significant concerns” about having enough time to prepare for a new date if the legislative process drags out, said John Buffone, a spokesperson for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

“Counties will have to reschedule more than 9,000 polling places in about six months, when they are typically contracted a year or more in advance,” he said. “With that also comes the responsibilities of notifying residents of any changes and rescheduling thousands of poll workers for the 2024 primary.”

Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) — the prime sponsor of the bill that advanced Wednesday — said the state Senate is motivated to act quickly because it understands counties are concerned with securing polling locations.

“It’s why we would like to get this bill passed as soon as humanly possible,” he said.

competing bill was introduced in the state House on Tuesday. That bill, from Democratic Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) and Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia), would move the primary to April 2.

The state House is not scheduled to return to session until late September, and Kenyatta said the House State Government Committee — of which he is a member — is not scheduled to take up either the state Senate bill or his proposal until Oct. 2. If fast-tracked, he said he hopes a bill would be on Shapiro’s desk in early October.

The state House bill originally aimed to change the primary date to March 19, but switched to April after election administrators voiced concerns over the tight timeframe and lawmakers realized campaigns would need to meet deadlines to get on the ballot in the middle of the winter holidays.

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D., Montgomery), the ranking Democrat on the Senate State Government Committee, said her chamber heard similar concerns.

She said that before Wednesday’s vote, the committee received messages from election administrators who argued that March 19 was too soon.

Those administrators prefer a primary date of April 9 or April 16, Cappelletti said.

She said state senators plan to add an amendment to the bill when it comes up for floor debate once the chamber returns to session in mid-September, adjusting the measure so that it moves the primary to an as-yet-undecided date later than March 19.

A spokesperson for state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward confirmed the date was still under discussion and an amendment may come, but said Republicans prefer the March 19 or March 26 dates to move Pennsylvania up in the presidential primary calendar.

“I would expect that to firm up in the next week or so,” spokesperson Erica Clayton-Wright said. “Moving it into April doesn’t [make Pennsylvania any more politically relevant], so obviously the sooner we can do it the better.”

She added that the plan is currently to have the full state Senate vote on a bill in September.

Forrest Lehman, an election administrator in Lycoming County, said election directors sometimes book buildings for polling places a year or more in advance, and that a date change may mean some facilities are unavailable, forcing counties to search for new buildings.

“What you’re going to have is, no matter what the date is, when you move it off the predetermined dates, you’re going to have issues with facilities and poll workers,” he said. “Even if we told them today, we are going to have some problems that we are going to have to work out. That’s going to be 10 to 20 times worse if we wait until December:”

The 2020 primary was moved from April to June due to concerns that year about in-person voting in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Lehman said the situation now is not analogous. That was a move to later in the year rather than earlier and came during a time when mail voting was at a high and most facilities were not in use, and thus could easily accommodate a change.

“Now we’re at a place where facilities are booked, they’re in usage, people are living their normal lives again, so you are absolutely going to have those conflicts,” he said.

An earlier election date also poses a challenge for political campaigns. If the date were moved to March 19, the first date to circulate nomination petitions would be December 19. The April 2 date would set the first day for petitions on January 2.

Circulating nominating petitions over the winter holiday season — which requires volunteers to be out collecting signatures from voters — could pose challenges for campaigns, which Kenyatta said was the second major reason for amending the date in the House bill.

Gov. Josh Shapiro — who has said he does not want the primary to conflict with Passover — said earlier this month that he was fine with whatever date the Legislature selects.

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