Earlier primaries would be better for everybody - almost

April 29, 2014

Drive across the state line into the Eastern Shore of Maryland and you’re hard pressed to tell the difference, except in two cases.

On snow days, it seems that the snow - at least on the roadway - stops right at the state line. Delaware roads may be icy and treacherous, but Maryland roads remain magically clear.

(There’s nothing magic, of course. Marylanders pay for this service, which is worth it, in terms of convenience, safety and business.)

And in election years, Maryland political signs begin sprouting even before the asparagus. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not because Maryland soil provides a superior environment for growing signs.

Maryland holds its primary elections in June, hence the sudden bloom of April political signs. Delaware holds its primaries in September, only two short months before the general election.

This results in Maryland having more signs up for the primaries than Delaware has for the general election. I realize this sits well with some people, but I enjoy seeing political signs, provided they are taken down soon after Election Day. They demonstrate people’s interest in democracy.

More important, earlier elections allow Maryland politicians more time to make their case against candidates of the opposing party (or parties). Primary elections, by their very nature, are often odd, ugly affairs that force candidates to alienate members of their own party.

I’m not saying primaries themselves are bad - they’re often meaningful ways to work out which way a party is headed - but the winners need more time to prepare for the general election.

In Delaware, late-date primaries mean candidates have only two months to reunite their party after what is often a bitter, bruising contest.

This is a long-standing and obvious problem. So obvious that an elections task force, chaired by state Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove, considered the issue.

Manlove, speaking at a recent AAUW/League of Women Voters forum, said, “We spent a lot of time debating the merits of changing the date of the September primaries. We have one of the latest dates in the country.”

This is a problem for election department officials, as well as primary candidates and voters. “By federal law,” Manlove said, “we have to get our military and overseas ballots in the mail 45 days before Election Day.”

This can mean having only two days between the primary election and when they have to print and mail out general election ballots. “It’s really a time crunch,” she said. But members of the elections task force couldn’t agree on a date.

One good suggestion was to move the primaries back one month, to August. This would not only give candidates more time, it would also eliminate security issues surrounding people entering schools when students are present. (Schools are always closed for general Election Day.)

Sandy Spence, who follows legislation before the General Assembly for the League of Women Voters, cited the failure to change the primary date as a disappointment. “That was one of the things we really thought should happen, and it didn’t,” she said. And she doesn’t buy the reason she was given.

“There was one person on the elections task force who I spoke to after the meeting,” Spence said. “And he told me that the reason that his caucus wouldn’t approve it was that incumbents didn’t want to allow their opponents more time to campaign.”

Since the legislators are busy in the General Assembly through the end of June, she was told, that would put incumbents at a disadvantage. They need that extra month to campaign. As Spence said, “Give me a break.”

Exactly. As if incumbents don’t have enough advantages as it stands now. It’s another example of what’s sometimes called “the Delaware Way.” Sometimes the phrase is used in a positive sense, sometimes negative. This is the latter.

An earlier primary is better for everybody, except maybe incumbents. I could live with that. But it won’t happen unless voters demand it.

• • •

On a non-political note, what a sad thing the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival’s agreement with the Movies at Midway is ending. While the festival will continue, it will be different.

The number of theaters at Midway allowed for the 2014 festival has been reduced from eight to four. Some movies will be shown at the high school. This will be last year for the festival at Midway.

Events wax and wane. I recall my son participating in the Rehoboth Beach Easter Promenade 18 years ago, when he was 6 years old.

But that was an example of a longtime tradition that gradually faded away.

That’s not the case with the film festival. November’s festival was as busy as ever, providing an economic boost for many local businesses and adding to the cultural life of the community.

Best of luck to the organizers in maintaining the high standard they have set with the festival.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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