North Carolina's new voter ID law, signed and enacted by Gov. Pat McCrory (R) this week, requires the state's voters to furnish identification at the polls and strips away a number of protections that guard against voter disinfranchisement. But that's not all the new law does! It also threatens to add new kinks to the always kinky and frequently fraught calendar of 2016 presidential primaries.
As longtime readers know, the primary season calendar is already a pretty nonsensical mess. Four states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- have won themselves the right to be "first in the nation." As such, these states dominate the season, both in terms of the greater power they wield in determining the eventual nominee, and in terms of the media's role in covering the primaries. (Typically, media budgets are frontloaded to offer lots of coverage of the early primary contests, and less for the states that come after.)
Since those states possess a disproportionate influence, other states have been trying for the past few cycles to horn in on the early primary game. The national political parties don't like this, and frequently sanction these states for mucking everything up, but all these states are really trying to do is give their voters a larger voice in the discussion. As interloping states push their way up the calendar, however, the Fortunate Four respond by pushing their primary dates earlier and earlier, always threatening to jump back before New Year's Day.
Now, the new North Carolina voter law pushes the Tarheel State into this mess, stipulating that the state's primary must fall on "the Tuesday after the first South Carolina presidential preference primary," in any year when South Carolina stages its primary before March 15th, which is every year.
American Hero and Frontloading HQ proprietor Josh Putnam helpfully provides some vital off-season explaining. Putnam points out that the Republican National Committee, which strives to keep order over the process, has rules stipulating that the early primary states are supposed to get a month between their primaries, before other states start holding primaries of their own. In 2012, Missouri briefly threatened to upset this applecart, but in the end it dialed back its ambitions and staged early, non-binding caucuses that were in compliance with party rules. But North Carolina's law, as written, is out of compliance, and is practically courting the RNC's "super penalty":
If any state or state Republican Party violates Rule No. 16(c)(1) of The Rules of the Republican Party with regard to a primary, caucus, convention or other process to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates and alternate delegates to the national convention by conducting its process prior to the last Tuesday in February, the number of delegates to the national convention shall be reduced to nine (9) plus the members of the Republican National Committee from that state, and the corresponding alternate delegates shall also be reduced to nine (9).
As Putnam points out, the real complication comes when South Carolina responds to North Carolina's encroachment -- the most obvious response being that South Carolina pushes ahead on the calendar. This, of course, drags the other three special states along with them, and now, by law, it does the same for North Carolina. This sets up a situation where South Carolina can make a choice that would force North Carolina to either accept the RNC's sanctions, or shift to a caucus.
But the bottom line here is that North Carolina is now on South Carolina's heels. And the best case scenario for the national parties has taken a bit of a hit. As it was with no change in Missouri -- triggering later and compliant caucuses there -- and Colorado, Minnesota and Utah opting into less provocative dates, Arizona and Michigan were the next earliest states on February 23. That would leave enough time between either February 16 or 20 and the last week in January. Now, with North Carolina threatening the balance, that best case scenario could look a lot like the worst case scenario outlined here: right back to the beginning of January where things have started the last two cycles.
Of course, part of me questions the RNC's resolve to mete out these super penalties, but their existence should encourage states like North Carolina to tread lightly. That said, it would be especially ironic if the bill that McCrory signed into law, in order to make it harder for his state's residents to vote, ended up disenfranchising his own party's presidential delegates as well.
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]