Delaying primary would weaken Pennsylvania voice

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At the Allegheny County elections division, staffers are calling poll workers and reminding them of the April 24 primary. Competitive bids are out for hauling machines to polling places. The schools, churches, apartment complexes and other buildings that host polls are being reminded, too.

There may be another round of calls this spring telling them to forget it.

With the district lines for the state's House and Senate seats in flux after rejection by the state Supreme Court, Republicans have raised the possibility of pushing back the April 24 date.

Such a move could sacrifice any chance that Pennsylvania voters have a major say in the choice of the GOP presidential nominee this spring, but it would serve Republicans in another way.

Delaying the primary could buy time for GOP leaders who want state elections held under new lines that combine Democratic seats in Western Pennsylvania or move them to the east. They went to federal court Monday seeking an injunction preventing the state from using old lines this year, but Senior U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick did not immediately rule on the request.

The battles come during a cycle that happens only every 20 years, when redistricting and presidential years coincide. Similar battles over congressional lines in Texas pushed back its primaries by one month to April 3 and on Monday were in danger of being delayed again.

Such jockeying over primary dates at this point in the calendar is rare. While the Pennsylvania fight is over state government elections, it directly affects the presidential and congressional races sharing the April 24 ballot.

"Presidential primary movement is common. Presidential primary movement in the midst of the primary calendar is not," Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, wrote in an email.

Pennsylvania usually holds its primaries the third week of May but moves them to late April in presidential years. Mr. Putnam, who runs the primary and delegate-tracking website Frontloading HQ, said the state was poised to have a say this year in a GOP nominee, possibly by pushing frontrunner Mitt Romney past the 1,144 delegates needed to lock up the party's nomination.

"To move back beyond that date, then, would mean Pennsylvania would be pushed out of the window of decisiveness in this race," he said.

A four-member majority of the state Supreme Court issued an 87-page opinion Friday that ordered the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to redraw the state districts and pay more attention to the "contiguity, compactness and the integrity of political subdivisions." In the meantime, it has ordered that the current districts drawn a decade ago stay in place.

The commission's executive director issued a proposed timeline calling on House and Senate leaders to propose new maps next week and then vote on them Feb. 22. They presumably would be exposed to full public comment and legal objection periods, taking the calendar close to, or beyond, the scheduled primary.

Quick approval will be especially difficult given the court's insistence Friday on full public input in the final boundaries. And even if the primary is pushed back, setting a new date would be difficult, too.

"The wildcard is you don't know yet when this map will actually get approved. You can't wish your way to getting a final map in time," said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University law school and executive director of the reapportionment commission in 1991.

"When is that to take place? It depends on a lot of factors. To pick a date randomly at this point doesn't guarantee anything," he said.

The order issued Friday by Chief Justice Ronald Castille said the court realized it "has disrupted the 2012 primary election landscape" and made no predictions on when new maps would be approved. Fault laid with the reapportionment commission, the order said.

"Any issues respecting deferring the state legislative primary, or scheduling special elections, etc., are, in the first instance, the concern and province of the political branches," it said.

As directed by the court, the state elections bureau is currently planning to go ahead with the April 24 primary using 2001 lines, spokesman Ron Rumen said. The next court-ordered step is collecting candidate nominating papers Feb. 16, two days later than usual. The bureau could change course and hold the primary on another date if directed otherwise, he said.

Changing the primary date would require regular legislation -- a bill passed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate and signed into law by fellow Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

There is also the possibility the state could hold two primaries: one for congressional and presidential candidates unaffected by the Supreme Court decision and another for state candidates. Besides being expensive for county election bureaus, it could cause havoc with voting machines, which have to be quarantined after elections in case of recounts and then reprogrammed.


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.


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