Commentary: Changing Delaware primary date is a dangerous move

Presidential primaries take place every four years and are closely followed events. States, including Delaware, have jockeyed for a meaningful place in the primary process with the hope of bringing in candidates and generating economic activity.

Delaware’s primary election for state and county offices has been held in early September for as long as most can remember. HB41, which passed the House and now awaits action in the Senate, would change the September primary to April.

Proponents of HB41 have argued that the change may increase turnout, reduce confusion in voters and save money. I don’t believe these arguments are true and feel ulterior motives are at play — shocking, I know. These motives, some of which are detailed below, should have HB41 titled as the “Incumbent Protection and Summer Vacation Restoration Act of 2019.”

Greg Lavelle

Delaware’s next presidential primary will be held on April 28, 2020. Given Delaware’s size and the date of the primary, which is after at least 32 other states will have held their primaries or caucuses, the hope that turnout will increase is speculation at best. A presidential primary process that is over before it gets to Delaware could actually reduce turnout. This timetable will also likely continue to shorten as states hopscotch to earlier dates with the hope of “mattering” and getting candidates to visit.

Voter confusion? Not likely. An “extra” election every four years is hardly confusing, especially since it is limited to just the president.

The cost of a statewide primary is about $1 million. Delaware’s General Fund budget over the next four years will approach $20 billion. Do the math. The saving money argument is a distraction to the underlying reason for the change, which is incumbent protection.

If reducing confusion and saving money were the true motivations at play, then why not include school board elections and referendums in the November election as some have advocated?

As for the ulterior motives, and these are arguments I made on the floor of the Senate when an earlier effort to make the change was defeated, HB41 will help protect incumbents by making it harder to campaign against them; lengthen the election cycle; reduce the pool of potential candidates; take the selection of primary candidates away from voters and hand it over to party insiders; and give legislators the summer vacation they so badly want after the legislature adjourns on July 1.

A primary in April would essentially require a challenger to start campaigning in the fall. Knocking on doors when it is dark out — cold weather aside — is not well received by voters. Except for some limited hours on the weekends, December is out as is January, February and most of March. The change to April makes it almost impossible to effectively campaign as is done now in the spring and summer on weekday evenings and weekends. Money will matter even more as the impact of shoe leather and voter interactions are significantly reduced.

Many candidates currently make the decision to run in primaries in the early spring or sometimes later. An April primary will force this decision to the previous fall and considerably lengthen the election cycle. This will reduce the pool of candidates willing and able to run given the work involved and the impact on families and professions.

Election results confirm that incumbents are difficult to defeat in primaries. Many legislators now announce their retirements in the spring, and an open seat can draw in numerous candidates and offer voters a choice. If an incumbent were to announce their retirement after the April primary, the party, not the voters, would select the candidates to run in November. Political insiders picking the candidates is hardly a good idea.

Finally, and there are other reasons to oppose HB41, I’ve had numerous legislators bemoan how they lose their summer vacation when they have to campaign in July and August. Well, they knew that going in, and a number of them won primaries under the current system. If they really want their summer vacations back, don’t change and damage our electoral process to meet their vacation plans, simply don’t run.

We all know that incumbents have numerous advantages in elections, and I don’t believe they need to vote themselves yet another one.

HB41, the Incumbent Protection and Summer Vacation Restoration Act of 2019, should not pass the Delaware Senate. If it does, voters will know the real reason and it has nothing to do with them.

Greg Lavelle, managing director of Puglisi & Associates in Newark, is a former Republican Senate Minority Whip in the Delaware General Assembly.

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