- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan would hold a March 15 presidential primary in 2016 under bills approved unanimously Thursday by the Senate, ensuring Republicans would not run afoul of party rules and lose delegates to their national nominating convention.

The election is scheduled for Feb. 23 under a law dating to 2012, when the GOP held an early primary - narrowly won by Mitt Romney - but was penalized and lost half of the state’s delegates to the convention.

The March 15 date was approved by the state Republican Party in September, yet parallel legislation stalled in the GOP-led House in December’s lame-duck session after winning easy passage in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“It’s about maximizing our relevance within the process,” said the new bills’ sponsor, Sen. Dave Robertson, a Grand Blanc Republican.

Democrats have been mum on whether they will participate in a primary or instead have a caucus.

New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada are scheduled to host the first four contests in February 2016.

Michigan can schedule the primary as early as March 1 without breaking Republican National Committee rules and losing all but 12 of about 60 delegates. It cannot be a winner-take-all election until March 15 or later.

Under rules adopted by the state GOP, a Republican contender securing more than half the statewide primary vote would win all delegates. Otherwise, three delegates would be awarded to the winner of each of 14 individual congressional districts. The remaining delegates would be split proportionally to match the statewide vote.

Some Republicans have said March 15 is too late for Michigan to be relevant. And now that Republicans are positioning themselves to run for president, there is the added dynamic of their allies potentially lobbying quietly for a date to best help their candidate’s chances.

There is talk of southern states banding together to have a regional March 1 contest known as the “SEC Primary.”

Robertson said a March 15 primary would make Michigan “well positioned … within the Midwest region to get the maximum amount of attention from the greatest number of candidates.”

It was unclear how quickly the legislation could move in the House, where a key lawmaker did not openly embrace the March 15 date.

House Elections Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican from Alto, said township officials are concerned because the week of March 15 is also when people can show up in person to appeal their property tax assessment.

“I want to make sure we are not interfering with that and causing logistical concerns,” she said.

Lyons said Michigan would be most relevant in the presidential nominating process by not accommodating the four early states, but she realizes “severe” penalties mean a primary must occur “sometime in March.”

The legislation specifies that Michigan’s regularly scheduled February election date - when voters might decide on local tax questions or other issues - would instead occur on March 15 in presidential years, to avoid having two elections within a span of weeks.

The primary will cost about $10 million, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Before the Senate vote, Republicans rejected Democrats’ attempts to tie the bills to a measure that would let Michigan voters cast an absentee ballot for any reason. Absentee voters now are supposed to be 60 or older, be out of town when the polls are open or meet other criteria.

“Voting is a cherished American right and Michigan should be leading the charge by enacting ways to better engage voters in the democratic process,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, a Warren Democrat.

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Senate Bills 44-45: https://1.usa.gov/16YP398

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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