Pennsylvania Legislators Suggest Moving Primary Date Up To Increase Voter Influence

Pennsylvania has one of the country’s latest primary dates.  Primaries in Pennsylvania are held the third Tuesday of May in even-numbered years or the fourth Tuesday of April during presidential nomination years.  Most states hold their primary elections before this date, with only around a dozen being at the same time or later.  In light of this, some legislators have made efforts to move Pennsylvania’s primary date up.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 779 and referred it to the House of Representatives’ State Government Committee on January 31, 2020.  This bill would amend the Pennsylvania Election Code to move the primary elections up to the third Tuesday of March.  At this date, it would be at the same time as or after only 16 other states.  This proposed bill would not change the primary date for years in which a president was not being elected.  This bill was proposed to first go into effect for the general primary election in 2024, so assuming there are no other date changes in responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, the primary date for 2020 will remain on June 2.

This bill was sponsored by Senator John R. Gordnor, who stated in a May 13, 2019 memorandum that it is meant to allow Pennsylvania voters to have a stronger say in the presidential elections.  The bill would make Pennsylvania voting in 2024 concurrent with elections in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois.

Pennsylvania is the fifth most populous state in the country, following only California, Texas, Florida, and New York.  It is also considered a swing state, along with around a dozen others.  This has made Pennsylvania a heavy focal point in many campaigns and elections.  In 2016, for example, Donald Trump won only about 40,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania.  That narrow victory gave him 20 more critical electoral votes, helping to bring his total to 306 over Clinton’s 232.

Despite the influential role Pennsylvania plays in many elections, it has far less of an impact in the primaries.  Because of its late primary date, many candidates will have already dropped out of the race by the time the primary elections arrive in response to data received from other states.  The current primary date places Pennsylvania voting at a point at which over 80% of delegates are already decided.  The earlier primary date proposed in Senate Bill 779 would bring the elections in Pennsylvania up to only two weeks after Super Tuesday voting, which is when around 40% of the delegates for the other states are decided.

The current controlling Pennsylvania Election Code was passed in June 1937, but there have been efforts prior to Bill 779 to change the primary dates.  For instance, House Bill 1318 was referred to state government in 2015, proposing moving the primary elections to the third Tuesday of March in presidential election years as well.  This bill, however, died in committee.

It is possible that one issue with this previous bill was that it was too close to an upcoming presidential election, thereby putting it at odds with Democratic and Republican election rules.  In general, such a measure has also been criticized for condensing the overall election schedule, thus making it more hectic and expensive for the country.

Bill 779 may suffer a similar fate if it cannot gain traction in the Senate. There does appear to be more interest now than in previous attempts, but only time will tell.

With contribution from Angela Mauroni, first year J.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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