Michigan's primary election date would change under bipartisan proposal

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A bipartisan proposal that would shift Michigan's primary election from August to June with potential reverberating political implications will at least get a committee hearing in the state Senate.

The idea is backed by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. This week, state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, the former GOP secretary of state, said the proposal will be debated before her Senate Elections Committee.

"I am not guaranteeing a vote," Johnson cautioned.

A voter cast his ballots at Greater Emmanuel Institutional church this morning during primary voting in Detroit, Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

A four-bill package to institute the change debuted in the Michigan Legislature Thursday with support from Senate President Pro Tem Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, and Sen. Paul Wojno, D-Warren, the top Democrat on the Senate Elections Committee.

Johnson didn't say what day the committee hearing would occur, but Wojno said he's heard it could happen as soon as Wednesday.

"It provides a form of transparency. You have more time to prepare," Wojno, former Warren city clerk, said of the proposal.

The suggestion is to do away with Michigan's May election, which generally features local ballot questions, and move the August primary to June. The reform could save money by ending the May election and would help local election officials who are facing more scrutiny by spacing out the primary election and the November general election.

It would also extend general election races, potentially like the 2022 contest for governor, by two months. Johnson said she met privately with Nesbitt about the bill for 45 minutes on Wednesday.

"He's put a lot of thought into it," Johnson said of the high-ranking Republican senator.

Benson said she was grateful to Nesbitt and Wojno for "recognizing the importance of this common-sense reform and look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to enact reforms that will increase the efficiency, accessibility and security of our elections.

"Consolidating the May and August elections into one June election will save taxpayer dollars and meet a longtime request of clerks to be allowed to operate more efficiently," Benson said.

Nesbitt contends that moving the primary date from August to June "would give our clerks more time between the primary and general election."

"If you have things like recounts or litigation after an August primary, you very quickly run into issues with getting ballots out for the general election," Nesbitt said.

The package will have to pass the Senate and House and gain the signature of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. If it does — and it's not amended before then — the change would take effect for the 2022 election, meaning primary races for governor, U.S. House and seats in the state Legislature would take place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in June, instead of in August. 

Michigan's presidential primary would remain in March.

The August-to-June primary change would have uncertain implications for Michigan politics, said David Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University.

"I think that a general election phase that would be eight weeks or so longer has potential to have a big impact,” Dulio said. “More money will be needed to be raised ... We'll have a longer time for the candidates to go at each other, maybe with negative ads."

However, Dulio noted that the added weeks would be over the summer when many voters might be paying less attention to politics.

"It always struck me that the general election in Michigan was a pretty short time frame," Dulio said.

Nesbitt

Michigan was one of about 20 states that waited until August or later to hold their state primary elections in 2020, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states, like Texas, Illinois and North Carolina, held their state primaries in March.

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said he is a "strong proponent" of moving the Michigan primary to June. He described it as an "accuracy and transparency issue."

The current setup has resulted over the past few years in the lack of a full and transparent post-election audit of the August primary, because there is simply not enough time to conduct a full audit with the other time constraints involved, Roebuck said. It’s also resulted in ballot errors and missed print deadlines at various jurisdictions across the state, he added.

"Moving our state’s primary to June means more time to audit or recount," Roebuck said. "And that means a more secure and transparent election. It would also allow a substantially greater amount of time for the proofing and printing of ballots, which would result in reduced administrative error and ballots getting into the hands of our voters on time for the November general."

cmauger@detroitnews.com