Threats to Michigan Primary Looming

The following piece is published on Michigan Messenger as well as OffTheBus.

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation changing Michigan's presidential primary to January 15, 2008 Republican and Democratic supporters predicted it would highlight Michigan's issues nationally and boost the economy. Instead, the January date has brought division among Michigan Democrats and a set of scenarios that could nix the Jan. 15 election.

With Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) the only front runner on the Democratic primary ballot, the January election is already a bust for the other Democrats. The absence of other Democrats assures that Clinton will receive most of Michigan's delegates. The Republicans can abide by the date unless the Democrats withdraw. This would make crossover voting more likely and skew Republican results.

Michigan Republican and Democratic Parties have until Nov. 14 to notify Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land that they will select delegates by a means other than the January primary. If both parties make that notification the election will be canceled. While both parties officially insist they will participate as planned, Democrats around the state - largely supporters of candidates other than Clinton - are discussing the prospect of caucuses. Both parties have contingency plans in place.

In the event that the primary is canceled, "The two parties have to fall back on a caucus/convention system," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "These are just contingency plans." Both parties have set dates for alternative events to the primary - Feb. 9th for Democratic caucuses and Jan. 25th and 26th for a Republican Presidential Preference convention.

This is something the parties must do and it does not necessarily indicate that the parties intend to withdraw from the primary, Ballenger added. Bill Nowling, Michigan GOP spokesperson, said the GOP's alternative dates were selected before the new law changed the primary date.

There's another challenge to the primary. A lawsuit filed in Ingham County by political consultant Mark Grebner, a Democrat, challenges the new law. Grebner contends that the new primary law turns what ought to be public information into private property. At the polls voters will indicate which ballot they want and that information will be collected. Then, according to Grebner and other critics, instead of being made part of the public record this information will only be available to the state Republican and Democratic parties.

Summarizing his concerns Grebner said, "Under the new statute the parties own the information and have a right to use it for any purpose they want, including selling it to candidates in primaries and they have no obligation to provide it equally."

"As far as I can tell, in the history of the United States nobody has ever previously claimed that the records of elections belong to the political parties for their future sale. There is no precedent for this." He said he has made this assertion publicly numerous times and no one has refuted it.

The suit could result in cancellation of the primary if a judge finds this aspect of the process illegal or unconstitutional. Grebner confirmed that a preliminary court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 7th to determine whether an injunction should be issued.

Pending state House legislation poses another threat to the primary. Introduced by Michigan Rep. Martin Griffin (D-Jackson) the bill calls for canceling the 2008 January primary outright. In subsequent presidential elections the bill would institute a statewide primary on the fourth Tuesday in February. The bill has been referred to the House Oversight and Investigations Committee. Hearings have yet to be scheduled.

Experts doubt that adhering to the early date will result in the loss of delegates to the national nominating conventions, a sanction threatened by both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. "My bet is that with the candidates agreeing not to campaign in Michigan and arguing that it was the state party that set the date, they'll probably seat the delegates," said University of Michigan political science professor Michael Traugott. "They may be more flexible about not holding to primary dates and levying sanctions, since the contests are significantly more open in this election."

Ballenger concurred. "It is ridiculous in my view to think the national parties will punish the states by withholding delegates, particularly if the nominee says we have to get our campaign going in Michigan and get everyone on board."

On the Democratic side, sticking with the early date would help Clinton in particular. "If primary goes ahead as is, Hillary will have a big advantage. The rest of them will be losers, whether they're on the ballot or not," Ballenger said. Caucuses would give candidates who withdrew a shot at gaining some delegates. "The people pushing for caucuses are mostly Edwards supporters. Edwards is very close to organized labor," Ballenger said.

The Republicans have been able to present themselves as committed to an open process. All their candidates are on the primary ballot and all have visited the state in recent months. In the third quarter, GOP candidates continued to raise more money in Michigan than Democratic candidates. According to a Washington Post summary of third quarter FEC filing data, Republican fund raising in Michigan outpaced Democrats' nearly two to one- $846,139 to $437,010.

The one scenario that might hurt Republicans would be if the Democrats withdrew from the primary, the GOP stayed in it and Democratic crossover voting affected the Republican outcome. That scenario happened in Michigan in 2000 when crossover voting gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) a victory over President Bush.