North Carolina House and Senate leaders have agreed to move all 2016 primaries to March 15 to save costs and potentially bring more voters out for the statewide races.
The move would mean candidates for president, governor, U.S. Senate and down-ballot races would all go before voters earlier than the May date used in past primaries.
And it also means that anyone considering a run for offices – from county commission to the state legislature to Congress – needs to be focused on the filing period that may be just three months away.
“The consensus is to move the primary to March,” House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters after a midnight budget vote Friday morning. “The rationale behind moving the primaries was (presidential elections) have a very high turnout.”
A high turnout can also help incumbents fend off primary challenges. In low-turnout primaries, especially in the Republican Party, incumbents can be vulnerable. One example was the shocking defeat of former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in Virginia last June by a vastly outspent and obscure college professor.
Legislators had also voiced concerns about the cost of holding two separate primaries in one year. They estimated it would cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million to hold a second primary.
An earlier presidential primary gives North Carolina a better chance of playing a more important role in the nominating process. In past presidential years, major parties had often already picked their nominees by the time North Carolina voted in May.
Moore said House and Senate legislators will likely vote on the March date sometime next week. Negotiators from both chambers are also finalizing legislation to put a $2 billion bond referendum for infrastructure and transportation projects on the ballot sometime next year – a major priority for Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s been lobbying for the bonds for months.
“We haven’t firmed up the bond dates, but we’re leaning toward March,” Moore said. “It would make sense to do the bond in March.”
There was bipartisan agreement in both chambers that the presidential primary should be moved up to increase the state’s relevance on the national stage. The Senate acted first with a unanimous vote to hold two primaries – presidential in March and statewide in May. However, when the plan was sent back to the House, representatives stalled it because of a technical error in the number of early voting days.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett Republican who led the effort on the House side, said this pause was just another opportunity some House lawmakers wanted to use to talk again about moving up all the primaries.
Now it seems the Senate is on board with this plan, as well.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, said the Senate sees the cost savings and the chance for more people to engage in the election process. He added that there would still be the same number of filing days for candidates, it would just happen a few months earlier.
In the scenario of a May primary, candidates would file from Feb. 8 to 29. With all March primaries, the filings would take place during the winter holidays.
Gary Sims, director of the Wake County Board of Elections, said his staff would have little turn-around time between certifying this November’s local elections and the earlier filing period.
“It’s what we do, and we will make it work,” Sims said. “We already knew 2016 would be a busy year. Yes, it’s more work on the front end, but it also means that if all those contests go earlier, we will have more time to prepare for the November presidential election. We expect that to be the biggest election we’ve ever had.”
Initially, lawmakers had hoped to hold North Carolina’s primary as early as the end of February to immediately follow South Carolina, but Republican National Committee leadership said it would penalize the state for breaking party rules. That move would have cost the state Republicans 60 of their 72 delegates to the national convention in Cleveland. The state GOP urged against it because North Carolina has the sixth largest delegation count to the convention, giving it major clout.
The RNC only allows four states to hold primaries as early as February. South Carolina is one of them.
Other state primaries to be held on the same day as North Carolina’s are Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Missouri.