Timing, costs roadblocks to moving up '08 primary

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HARRISBURG -- Some Pennsylvania politicians -- notably Gov. Ed Rendell -- want to move the state's 2008 primary election up to as early as Feb. 5 to give Pennsylvanians a greater say over which candidates lead the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets next year.

But it would be difficult to make such a dramatic change happen, because too many legislators and officials fear that an earlier primary would cause logistical headaches for election bureaus, additional costs to counties, petition circulating difficulties for candidates and extra burdens on school boards in adopting their new budgets.

"It's dubious at best that we will be moving to an earlier primary in 2008," said Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga, Republican chairman of the House State Government Committee, which held a three-hour hearing yesterday on the issue.

Because many ballot preparations would have to be started much sooner by county elections officials, "we would have to pass a law [for a Feb. 5 primary] before the end of June," Mr. Baker said. "With the new state budget still unsettled, I don't think there's enough time. Plus we heard a lot of testimony against the idea."

The state's spring primary usually is held in May, but in presidential election years it moves up to late April. The 2008 Pennsylvania primary -- to choose candidates for presidential and state legislative races -- is now set for April 22.

Holding it then will put Pennsylvania weeks behind many other states that hold presidential primaries in January, February and March.

Mr. Rendell said that would reduce the Keystone State's impact on the 2008 presidential race. With 12 million people and a prominent role in national politics, Pennsylvania should attract more attention from candidates of both parties next year, he said.

"There will be real contests for both parties' nominations in 2008," the governor said in a statement. "The election will be perhaps the most important in many, many years.

"I do not believe that Pennsylvanians should be left out of this [candidate selection] process, so I support advancing Pennsylvania's primary in 2008 to Feb. 5, which will join us with our sister industrial states."

The Iowa political caucuses are set for Jan. 14; the New Hampshire primary is Jan. 22; Florida's primary is Jan. 29; and 20 other states already plan to vote on Feb. 5. By April 22, many politicians think, the Democrats and the GOP will have chosen their candidates for November and Pennsylvania will have no influence over the outcomes.

Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, has introduced a separate bill to move the primary up to Feb. 12. A third bill, by Rep. Ron Buxton, D-Dauphin, would put the primary on March 11. They probably won't be acted on either.

Mr. Readshaw said he was flexible and could support Feb. 5.

"Having the Pennsylvania primary in late April in presidential election years means we continue to lose ground as far as our national influence is concerned," he said.

But Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, strongly opposes any of the earlier dates. He said it would cost counties additional money and make it harder to send out ballots to overseas and military voters. He said contracts for polling places would have to be renegotiated.

Also, candidates would have to decide about running for office much earlier, because they'd have to circulate petitions in November rather than February. That could squeeze the timetable for opponents to file challenges to petition signatures with county boards of elections and Common Pleas courts.

To give the 67 counties enough advance time to implement a Feb. 5 primary, the Legislature must enact the new law by June 30, said Mr. Hill and Deputy Secretary of State Tom Weaver. House panel members said that's not much time, since most of the next two weeks will be needed for difficult negotiations on the proposed $27.3 billion state budget.

Other opponents said February's often bad weather could reduce voter turnout, noting that the "Valentine's Day Massacre" snowstorm on Feb. 14 paralyzed Eastern Pennsylvania.

Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver, said senior citizens could have a difficult time getting out to vote if there is a snowstorm.

Another problem results from Act 1 of 2006, which requires school boards to submit their proposed new budgets to voters several weeks in advance, so that voters can hold referendums if those budgets exceed the rate of inflation. With a Feb. 5 primary, school boards would have to adopt new budgets in November, even though they wouldn't take effect until July. Some legislators said that was unreasonable.

Chuck Ardo, a Rendell aide, said he was disappointed at the legislators' unwillingness to move up the primary. New Hampshire has been known to have snow in January, but its voters somehow make it to the polls, he said.

"I'm not sure why some legislators believe that Pennsylvania voters are less able or less motivated than voters in all the other states that have moved their primary up to an earlier date," Mr. Ardo said.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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