New law may require D.C., Md. to abandon Sept. primary dates

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; B01

Every four years, for more than three decades, voters in Maryland and the District have been going to the polls for primary elections in September after the kids are back in school and the summer travel season had ended.

But after the 2010 elections, the traditional September primary might become as extinct as the hand-counted ballot, as states begin abiding by a new federal law designed to make voting easier for overseas service members.

As part of a defense spending bill approved in October, Congress enacted the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which requires that service members receive absentee ballots at least 45 days before the November general election. But state elections officials say that will make it impossible for them to wait until September to choose nominees.

"We physically can't do it and have a September primary," said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose committee oversees local election law. "The earliest we could move it back is August, but August is a horrible month to hold an election because people are not really focusing on much other than vacation."

The law applies to federal races but extends to state and local elections because those contests are often held concurrently. Cheh said she thinks that the District should consider after this year joining Virginia and holding its primaries in June, but that will be up to the council. Some Maryland legislators are eyeing a move to an August primary date, a step the Minnesota legislature recently completed to comply with the law.

A new election schedule would dramatically change how politicians campaign for office, creating longer general election campaigns and accelerated fundraising schedules. In heavily Democratic or Republican states and communities, where primaries are often tantamount to a general election, the new rules could create extended lame-duck incumbents.

In addition to Maryland and the District, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin might have to move their primary dates, according to the Pew Center on the States. Vermont also has a September primary, but state lawmakers are considering a bill to join Minnesota in moving it up to August this year to comply with the act.

"The level of anxiety is determined by the state at this point, because each state is different," said Kay Stimson, the communications and special projects director for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

For voters in the District and Maryland, a shift from the September primary would upend tradition. Voters in the District, where the Democratic primary is often the decisive election in determining who wins an elective office, have been selecting nominees in September since home rule in 1973. Maryland has been holding its primary in September since the 1966 gubernatorial and congressional elections, elections officials said.

Elections officials in the District and Maryland plan to apply for waivers from the federal government this year, noting that their primary dates had been set long before the new law went into effect. But Bob Carey, executive director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, said states won't be able to apply for continual waivers, meaning most with September primaries will have to move them up after the 2010 election. "If a state says the only way they can get their ballots out 45 days out [from the general election] is to change their primary date, I guess they need to change the primary date," Carey said.

Carey said that without the new law, service members in war zones could be disenfranchised from participating in elections. "It's just the physics of mail delivery," Carey said. "That ballot is often going by convoy, and it's competing with bullets and other supplies."

Maryland Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight over the State Board of Elections, said she is leaning toward moving the primary to August.

That debate, however, could pit state, local and federal elected officials against one another. In Maryland, statewide elected officials cannot raise money during the 90-day legislative session, which ends in April. If a primary were held in May or June, some state legislators might fear that they would not have enough time to raise money.

Members of Maryland's congressional delegation favor a spring primary so nominees have time to replenish their campaign accounts between primary and general elections, Hixson said.

County officials in Maryland say a spring primary would compete with their annual May 31 deadline for completing work on the budget. "They are under too much pressure and don't want to deal with their opponents then," Hixson said.

An unknown is how an earlier primary schedule will affect turnout. Maryland and the District each average about 35 percent turnout for September primaries. But John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state and a public policy professor at the University of Baltimore, thinks voters will adjust to whatever primary date is set.

"Other states do it in the middle of summer, and some of them are hotter states than Maryland," he said.

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