It was too good to be true.
After years of discussion — but no action — the state Senate voted last month to finally approve legislation moving Pennsylvania’s presidential primary from the fourth Tuesday in April to the third Tuesday in March.
The earlier date, which would take effect in 2024, would give Pennsylvania voters a much greater voice in the nomination of presidential candidates than currently exists. Normally by the time Pennsylvania holds its presidential primary, the race is already over.
The only recent primary that was still in play came in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned heavily across the state in search of votes for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Clinton ended up winning the state but it wasn’t enough to stop Obama from getting the nomination.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton had a large lead over U.S. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., coming into Pennsylvania, and trouncing him by a 58-41 percent margin.
“For many years, the selection of the Presidential nominee has already been determined by the time Pennsylvania voters have gotten the opportunity to cast their ballot,” said state Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, who wrote the bill.
“My bill will allow our citizens to play a much larger role in determining the outcome of these critical elections,” added Gordner, the chamber’s Majority Whip.
This year, only 16 primaries will be held after Pennsylvania’s April 28 election, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The proposed move, which still needs a vote in the state House, would allow voters in Pennsylvania to cast their ballots the same day as other influential states, including Arizona, Ohio, Florida and Illinois.
For that reason, California moved up its presidential primary date this year from June 11 to March 3.
Holding the primary earlier would also be a boon to the state’s economy. Money spent by the candidates, especially on advertising, could generate much needed revenues for the state.
In addition, the primary would focus attention on the state’s problems and possible solutions.
However, the bold move by the state Senate may be all for naught.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, who is chairman of the state government committee, told CNHI Newspapers, a regional chain, that a lot of his fellow lawmakers see little point in the move.
Everett said that it’s not entirely clear that moving the primary earlier in the calendar will give voters in Pennsylvania greater influence.
This year, “there are so many [Democrats] in the race,” it’s far from clear the Democrats will have decided on a nominee before the Pennsylvania primary, Everett said.
A part of the resistance comes from the fact that moving the primary earlier in the year would shift the entire campaign calendar, he added.
If the primary is moved up five weeks, that would force candidates to begin circulating their nomination petitions over the holidays.
And that has to avoided at all costs, right?
You have to remember that next year’s election won’t involve all that many candidates. We’re not talking about local elections for county commissioners, township supervisors, school board members, mayor and council members. This is an election for the state Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in addition to the presidency.
And don’t forget that many of the candidates will run unopposed.
In the end, moving up the primary would basically be an inconvenience for legislators themselves, and we can’t have that, right?
It also comes down to the fact that legislators are comfortable with the current political timetable. They’ve gotten used to the election calendar and are hesitant about making any changes to it. Inertia is always one of the hallmarks of the state Legislature even if it denies Pennsylvanians a meaningful chance to pick our next president,
It’s not like the issue hasn’t come up before. State Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Lancaster, introduced legislation last spring to move up the primary as he has done in previous years. But just like his previous efforts, the bill went nowhere.
There was also some hope that the bill could be part of the election reform agreement reached between Wolf and Republican lawmakers, who control the Legislature.
But the bill never gained the much-needed momentum for its passage.
So, is there any hope of the bill ever passing the House? Well, the 2024 election is still a ways off.
In the meantime, Pennsylvania residents could lobby their local legislators and pressure them to put their own interests aside and do something for the greater good.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly.
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