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Government & Politics

Democrats strip Iowa of first-in-the-nation prize, tap South Carolina for first primary

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison fires up the crowd at a University of Maryland rally. Joining him on the stage were Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore (far right), U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (center) and Maryland Democratic Chair Yvette Lewis (second from left). Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Voters in South Carolina would go first in picking Democratic presidential nominees, followed by Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan if their states go along with a proposal a key Democratic National Committee panel approved Friday.

The Rules and Bylaws Committee’s nearly unanimous voice vote proposes moving the Democratic primary’s earliest election date away from the longtime first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, though New Hampshire would maintain an early role and vote just a week after South Carolina. President Biden, who in 2020 didn’t win a primary until South Carolina, had requested the major shakeup in the party’s presidential nomination process.

Just two members of the 33-person committee — Scott Brennan of Iowa and Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire — opposed the change.

“Small, rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nomination process,” Brennan said ahead of the vote. “Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to the party for a generation.”

Adding “two very large, very expensive states” to the mix,” Brennan added, apparently referring to Michigan and Georgia, would “surely favor front-runners and billionaire vanity candidates.”

Dowdell indicated her home state may not comply with the new plan, noting there’s a state law that requires New Hampshire to go first.

“New Hampshire does have a statute, we do have a law, and we will not be breaking our law,” Dowdell said before voting began. “And I feel that any lawyer in the room or around the table would agree that it is not in the best interest of this body to even suggest that we do that.”

Iowa has held a leadoff spot for Democrats since the 1970s, bringing immense amounts of publicity as presidential candidates stump the state for months and even years in advance seeking support. It would be replaced by Michigan as an early-voting state in the Midwest.

Conditional approval

The vote the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee held Friday afternoon inside a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C. would conditionally approve waivers for those five states to hold their Democratic presidential primary election days ahead of the regular window, which runs from the first Tuesday in March through the second Tuesday in June. Maryland’s 2024 presidential primary is tentatively scheduled for late April.

In 2024, South Carolina would vote on Feb. 6, Nevada and New Hampshire on Feb. 13, Georgia on Feb. 20 and Michigan on Feb. 27, though the full DNC must approve the waivers at a meeting in February.

Before the DNC will sign off on the changes, those five states must show the national party they are moving to hold their presidential primaries in 2024 on those dates. If that happens, the DNC would then vote to adopt the waivers the Rules and Bylaws Committee approved Friday.

Whether those five states will get to hold their Democratic presidential primaries on those dates depends on varying factors, since in South Carolina the primary date is set by the party chair; Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire’s primary dates are set by state law; and Georgia’s is established by its secretary of state.

The DNC panel also said that in order for New Hampshire to get its waiver approved to hold an early primary, it needs to expand access to early voting.

If a state doesn’t meet the requirements the DNC panel outlined Friday, then the full DNC will not approve the waiver and the state must hold its primary during the regular primary election window.

If a state without a waiver holds a Democratic presidential primary outside that window, it would face some significant consequences.

DNC rules say that state would automatically lose half its delegates. Presidential candidates would be barred from campaigning in the state, including placing their name on the ballot. A Democratic presidential candidate who violates that restriction would not receive any pledged delegates or delegate votes from that state.

‘Voiceless and vote-less’

DNC Chair Jaime Harrison said following the vote that he was emotional when he heard Thursday night that Biden was going to suggest South Carolina go first in the Democratic presidential nominating process.

Biden wrote the DNC on Thursday that, “We must ensure that voters of color have a choice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window.” Both Iowa and New Hampshire have overwhelmingly white populations.

“As I said in February 2020, you cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color — and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters,” Biden wrote.

Harrison said overhauling which Democratic voters get an early voice in the presidential nominating process will help to elevate voters who have been “voiceless and vote-less” in the past.

He noted that South Carolina “is a state where 40% of enslaved people came through the port of Charleston” and said in Nevada “Latinos have been building their political power and lifting their voices.”

Harrison said Michigan’s new role represented the “heartland” and a state where unions helped to build the middle class, “not in just that state, but in the nation.”

Georgia, Harrison said, represented a “Phoenix of the new South” that “has risen from the ashes of the old South… reflecting all of our diverse and progressive values.”

New Hampshire’s ongoing inclusion in the early Democratic primary states, he said, would continue “the great tradition here in America that small government is good government.”

“This proposal reflects the best of our party as a whole, and it will continue to make our party and our country stronger,” Harrison said. “And it will elevate the voices who are the backbone of the party.”

State laws

The transition to a different slate of early primary states could face some hiccups given that both Iowa and New Hampshire have state laws in place that could keep them at the front of the line, though the DNC’s top lawyer said Friday he expects the new order to continue moving forward.

“While the party doesn’t have the ability to dictate to a state what its law is, the party doesn’t have the ability to mandate a change to state law,” said Graham Wilson, general counsel. “The party has the ability to dictate the process by which we select our nominee.”

The Supreme Court, Wilson said, “has repeatedly recognized political parties’ rights under the First Amendment to select the manner” they choose nominees and has “repeatedly invalidated state laws that limit or infringe on a party’s ability to dictate how they select their nominees.”

New Hampshire Attorney General John M. Formella doesn’t necessarily agree with that, saying in a statement Friday that “political parties don’t dictate when elections are held.”

“In our state RSA 653:9 obligates the New Hampshire Secretary of State to set the primary date at least seven days preceding a similar election in any other state,” Formella said. “New Hampshire law requires the Secretary of State to set the date of this election irrespective of any actions taken by a political party.”

In Iowa, Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said in a written statement the “state law requires us to hold a caucus before the last Tuesday in February, and before any other contest.”

“When we submit our delegate selection plan to the Rules and Bylaws Committee early next year, we will adhere to the State of Iowa’s legal requirements, and address compliance with DNC rules in subsequent meetings and hearings,” Wilburn wrote.

He also noted that the next Iowa Democratic caucuses will be vastly different from those plagued with issues in 2020, saying the party has implemented a “simplified vote-by-mail process that increases accessibility and grows our Party.”

The Iowa attorney general’s office said Friday it “would have to do more research on the question before” it could comment.

In Georgia, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs rejected the idea of Democrats holding their primary on one day while the GOP holds theirs on another.

“Our legal team has continuously stated that both party’s primaries are going to be on the same day and that we will not cost anyone any delegates,” Fuchs said.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, in a statement praised the committee vote.

“Georgia Democrats have always said that our state will play a critical role in the national political landscape for years to come and must be prioritized as such,” she said. “Today’s vote by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee to recommend Georgia as an early primary state reflects the Democratic Party’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity, and we are grateful for the committee’s recognition.”

John McCosh and Jill Nolin contributed to this report.