How do parties and states set presidential votes?

A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses on a downtown skywalk, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Officials in Iowa, the leadoff voting state for 40 years, noted a state law mandating that its caucuses take place at least eight days before any other nominating contest. In New Hampshire, the site of the first-in-the-nation primary for more than a century, a state law requires that its presidential primary be held first by at least a week.

Nonetheless, the Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm on Dec. 2 approved a revamped schedule for early votes for the 2024 presidential primary: first South Carolina, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, then Georgia and finally Michigan. The DNC didn’t set a specific date for Iowa to vote, and it wasn’t immediately clear how the state planned to reconcile its existing law with the party’s new calendar.

States can pass laws with the aim of telling other states what they can and cannot do, but such laws have no force. Any state could enact a law saying it must vote first, without it binding elsewhere.

So what happens if state law clashes with what national party leaders want on voting order? A state must change that law or run the risk that its delegates will not count toward the national nominating total.

WHY ALL THE CHANGES NOW?

The new calendar, awaiting approved by the full DNC, has been in the works for years. The party has long debated putting more diverse states in front of largely white states and moving away from the time-consuming and confusing caucus process.

What accelerated the changes was the debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

A new smartphone app designed to calculate and report results failed, leading to a telephone backlog that prevented the party from reporting final results for nearly a week after the contest. There were so many irregularities and inconsistencies in the reporting of the results that The Associated Press was unable to declare a winner, though Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is now Biden’s transportation secretary, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finished essentially tied for the lead.

Biden finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire that year before going on to win the nomination after a dominant performance in South Carolina, the first state with a predominantly Black Democratic base. After that commanding victory, voters in other states followed suit, elevating Biden from a crowded field of candidates.

South Carolina’s vault into the first spot would put it in a premier position in 2024.

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WHAT ARE THE STATES SAYING?

Iowa had been bracing for losing its leadoff slot ever since the 2020 caucus chaos.

Former Iowa Democratic Chair Scott Brennan, a member of the DNC committee that considered the 2024 calendar, voted against the changes to the order of states. He said they would “certainly favor front-runners and billionaire vanity candidates” by not including early-voting states in the center of the country. Ross Wilburn, the current head of the Iowa Democratic Party, said over the weekend that he won’t run for reelection in January after the DNC move to put the South Carolina primary ahead.

New Hampshire’s delegation has long threatened to defy Democratic rules and hold its primary first anyway. A state law passed in the 1970s requires that its presidential primary be held first, laying out the purpose as to “protect the tradition of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation presidential primary.” It also gives the secretary of state the exclusive power to set the primary date.

On news of the revised calendar plan, New Hampshire Democrats appeared ready to spurn the national party. “We will always hold the first in the nation primary, and this status is independent of the president’s proposal or any political organization,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan.

Nevada has been the first voting state in the West since 2008. Last year, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a law changing the contest from a party-run, in-person caucus to a government-run primary election, to be held on the first Tuesday in February in a presidential election year — or, for 2024, on Feb. 6.

While Nevada officials had hoped this would lead to the state’s holding the new first-in-the-nation status, it will still hold significant prominence, especially with early voting beginning on Jan. 27.

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