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Whitmer signs law to make Michigan early primary state; still not clear if effective in time for 2024

Governor Gretchen Whitmer, surrounded by lawmakers, signing into law SB 13, which moves up the state's presidential primary.
courtesy of the Governor's office
Governor Whitmer signs SB 13 into law, making Michigan an early presidential primary state.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a new law Wednesday that would bump Michigan up in the presidential primary process. Whitmer said the law would give the state’s voters a stronger voice in choosing the president, by counting their votes earlier.

But Republican leaders said their party’s rules mean that it could actually disenfranchise their primary voters. And, in either case, it’s still not clear if the law will take effect in time for the 2024 election.

“Michigan is an ideal place to hold an early presidential primary,” Whitmer said in a statement after signing the law, known as Senate Bill 13.

“I was proud to sign Senate Bill 13, which will bring economic activity to Michigan and ensure our voices are heard during the primary process. Let’s continue to create jobs, grow our economy, and build a state where everyone can envision their future,” Whitmer’s statement said.

The law came about after Democratic leaders at the national level pushed to reorder which states lead the way in the presidential primary process.

The Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary have long been first on the calendar. Candidates who do well in those states can often build momentum to win in other states.

But the Democratic National Committee adopted new rules last year that would allow South Carolina to hold the first primary, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and then Michigan.

If the law takes effect in time, Michigan’s primary would be held on February 27, 2024, and then on the fourth Tuesday in February for every presidential primary afterwards. The state’s presidential primary in the past has been held on the second Tuesday in March.

The bill to move up the primary passed the state Legislature on a partisan vote, with Republicans objecting because they said it would hurt voters in their own primary. The Republican National Committee rules say most states cannot hold primary votes before March 1.

“Republicans are going to be penalized at the national convention,” said Jeff Wiggins, spokesperson for Republican state Senate minority leader Aric Nesbitt.

Wiggins said Michigan could lose more than 80% of its presidential delegates to the convention, under current RNC rules. “We said we’re open to compromise here, just don’t have us get dinged when it comes to losing our delegates at national convention.”

Democrats have pointed out that the RNC could still change its rules so that early primary states aren’t punished. But Wiggins said it was the Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise that led to the challenging situation their leaders now face in trying to get the law to take effect in time for the 2024 election.

Under the state’s constitution, in order for a law to take immediate effect, it has to pass with a two-thirds majority in the Legislature. Because Republicans held out, SB 13 didn’t cross the threshold. That means it will now take effect 90 days after the end of this year’s legislative session.

To meet that deadline, Democratic leaders would have to adjourn the legislature no later than November 29. Currently, legislators are scheduled to be in session through the first few weeks of December.

“One way or another it’ll get worked out."
Steve Liedel, attorney at the Dykema law firm.

“Ball’s in their court,” Wiggins said of Democrats and the legislative calendar. “And we’ll see what they decide and why this was so necessary.”

A spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks declined to comment on any possible changes to the legislative calendar this year, and instead pointed to a statement issued after SB 13 first cleared the legislature.

“The legislative majority sent a strong signal today that we value the voices of Michigan voters who are deserving of early participation in choosing each party’s presidential nominee,” read the statement, which was issued by both Sen. Brinks and Democratic State Sen. Jeremy Moss, who sponsored the bill. “Senate Bill 13, as passed, starts this process. We look forward to continuing to work with our national partners to fully enact an early primary by 2024.”

How exactly they plan to do that is still unclear, but at least some among the Democrats have no doubt it will be resolved in time.

“One way or another it’ll get worked out,” said Steve Liedel, an attorney with the Dykema law firm, who also served in the administration of former Governor Jennifer Granholm.

Liedel said Democrats have some options for having the new law take effect, starting with hammering out a new deal with Republicans in the future for a replacement law that could win the required two-thirds support. Or, he said, Democrats could call a special session that ends early, and pass a replacement law on their own. And if those options fail, they could just adjourn early.

“They’re already ahead of schedule compared to other legislatures,” Liedel noted.

How it gets done, “that’s inside-Lansing baseball,” Liedel said. But he believes it will get done, and Michigan, he expects, will hold its next presidential primary on February 27, 2024.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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