States rethinking primary dates

Combining presidential, local votes a money-saver

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. | In these tough times, even how we nominate presidents is facing the threat of the budget ax.

Lawmakers and elections officials in at least six cash-strapped states are hoping to move or replace their stand-alone 2012 presidential primaries, sacrificing some influence over who wins the nominations in favor of saving millions of dollars.

The moves to either delay primaries by several months or hand over the nominating process to party-run caucuses come as the Republican and Democratic parties implement new rules to limit the number of states voting before March 1.

The last election cycle saw states move up their contests seeking a bigger say in a process, a change that, ironically, ended up lasting months longer than anyone expected.

The 2012 cycle looks different, but not because the electoral map has changed significantly or because the nominating competition is likely to be on one side of the aisle.

States are facing billion-dollar budget shortfalls, and legislators are trying to cut budgets.

“We are in the mode now of looking after needs instead of wants,” said Alabama Rep. Steve Clouse, who introduced a bill to move his state’s primary from February or March to June, when it can be merged with a primary for state offices.

The move could save nearly $4 million. The governor has recommended $159 million in cuts to more than 200 programs to balance the budget.

Missouri and California also are considering shifting to June. In California’s case, the savings could be $100 million.

Kansas, Washington state and Massachusetts are considering switching to much-cheaper caucuses, the kind of political party-run public gatherings made famous in Iowa, where voters gather and cajole neighbors to back their candidate. More than a dozen other states hold such events.

There are several states that are trying to maintain their position in the nominating process.

Florida and Minnesota want to keep their primaries in February, figuring they will benefit from the increased media exposure and the modest economic bump that comes with campaigns buying advertising and staging events.

Those factors and heated races on both sides pushed a slew of states four years ago to try to jump to the front of the line.

This time, it makes more financial sense to combine primaries for state and federal offices, said Ben Fong, a Democrat in the California Assembly who is sponsoring a bill to move his state’s primary from February to June.

“It would save $100 million when every penny counts,” Mr. Fong said. The state is facing an estimated $26.6 billion shortfall.

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