WASHINGTON, D.C. – National Democrats voted to reorder the presidential nominating calendar Friday, stripping Iowa of its long-held position at the front of the line and instituting new sanctions that could limit the state’s ability to defy them and launch a rogue contest.
After nearly a year of hearings and debate over a possible primary order, President Joe Biden offered a proposed calendar last week to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. The committee quickly coalesced around the president’s plan, approving it at a Friday afternoon meeting in Washington, D.C.
It is expected to be ratified by the full DNC early next year.
The changes are dramatic, replacing Iowa with South Carolina as the first state to nominate a Democratic candidate for president. Nevada and New Hampshire follow with a shared primary date. Michigan and then Georgia round out the early voting window before Super Tuesday.
But party leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire have vowed to hold their contests first – regardless of the committee’s decision.
The result could be a year of extended uncertainty and jockeying as states maneuver for a more politically advantageous spot on the calendar and navigate a complicated web of conflicting state laws. Both Iowa and New Hampshire have laws on the books stating that their nominating processes must go first.
But the national committee has put in place new guardrails and extensive sanctions for states that defy its orders — changes members hope will derail such an outcome.
“I think we sort of crossed the Rubicon on this in 2008,” said Elaine Kamarck, a Democratic National Committee member and a scholar of the presidential nominating process.
What happened when states went rogue
In the leadup to 2008, Florida chose to move up its primary contest, setting off a chain reaction among other states trying to leapfrog each other on the calendar — chaos that didn’t resolve until the end of October 2007, two months before Iowa’s early January 2008 caucuses.
The committee issued sanctions then and stuck to them throughout the process, Kamarck said, initially taking away the delegates for Florida and Michigan before eventually brokering a deal to give them back half of their allotted delegate count.
“I think from then on, people understand that the party is serious about enforcing its rules, it’s serious about setting rules far in advance of the primary and then sticking to them,” she said. “And I think people will understand that now.”
Members of the committee acknowledged the changes to the early voting window could be difficult to enact. But they largely rallied behind the president’s proposal, cheering its focus on bringing Black voices to the forefront.
“The logistics of this window will be something we need to navigate as a committee,” said co-chair Minyon Moore. “But I agree with the president that this is a bold window that reflects the values of our party, and it is a window worth fighting for.”
But Scott Brennan, Iowa’s representative on the committee, who was chair of the state party during the calendar fight in 2007, warned that another year of confusion could result from this new calendar.
“As someone who has lived through a similar version of this process, I would be remiss if I did not say we are creating a situation of continued uncertainty that will continue to drag on throughout 2023,” he said. “We can vote on this calendar. We can approve this calendar. But we will leave here with nothing settled.”
Jim Roosevelt, the national committee’s other co-chair, was dismissive.
“If they go earlier, they’re running some kind of beauty contest that does not impact the delegate process at all,” he said of Iowa.
Committee gives DNC ‘more teeth’ to enforce the primary calendar
Anticipating that the calendar change might set off frustrations among states, committee members earlier this year approved a slate of new penalties for states that hold unsanctioned nominating contests and candidates who compete in them.
Any state violating the calendar will automatically lose half its delegates to the national convention. And candidates campaigning there — such as putting their name on the ballot or running TV ads —will not be eligible to win any delegate votes from that state.
Additionally, the DNC chair now has the leeway to take any other steps deemed appropriate to enforce the rules. That could include changing the rules around debates, blocking any campaigning outside the prescribed calendar from participating.
Mo Elleithee, a committee member from Washington, D.C., said the changes give the DNC “more teeth than I think it ever has before” as it seeks to enforce its rules.
The committee also decided to grant the five first states waivers to hold their early contests, but only if they meet certain contingencies.
Each state must certify by Jan. 5 that they have made any necessary statutory changes to their election laws and commit to holding their primary on the date set by the committee, regardless of when any other state holds its primary contest.
Locking states into a specific date, rather than giving them the ability to set their own date within the early window, should help stave off some of that jockeying for a better position, Kamarck said.
“We set a calendar that we think makes sense for the opening, at least in 2024,” she said. “And that's the sequence that we want to keep.”
The dates set by the committee are:
South Carolina: Feb. 3
New Hampshire and Nevada: Feb. 6
Georgia: Feb. 13
Michigan: Feb. 27
New Hampshire and Iowa promise to defy DNC; uncertainty could follow
But some level of chaos could still result. The requirements set for New Hampshire go further than those on other states.
New Hampshire’s governor, Senate majority leader and House majority leader — all Republicans — must provide signed letters to the committee agreeing to make all the statutory changes necessary to hold the state’s primary on the prescribed date.
That’s a violation of the state’s existing law, which says New Hampshire’s presidential primary will always be at least seven days before any other “similar election.” New Hampshire has traditionally interpreted “similar election” to mean a primary election, allowing Iowa to hold its presidential caucuses first.
It’s a law that New Hampshire officials have aggressively enforced over many decades.
Those same state officials must also certify to the committee that they will expand access to early voting — something Republicans have not generally been amenable to across the country.
The DNC requirements are a near-impossible burden for New Hampshire. If it or any other state is unable to meet the new contingencies, the committee will require it to hold its primary after Super Tuesday.
“We may have a standoff,” Kamarck said. “I think New Hampshire still is going to get an enormous amount of attention (in this position on the calendar). So we're hopeful that maybe after the complaining wanes that they'll do the right thing.”
But Granite State officials have been unequivocal in saying they will follow their state law and hold a first-in-the-nation primary, whatever the consequences.
“We will always hold the first-in-the-nation primary, and this status is independent of the president's proposal or any political organization,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire said in a statement.
Iowa leaders have similarly said they will follow state law, which says it will hold precinct caucuses at least eight days earlier than any other presidential nominating contest.
But because Iowa’s caucuses are run by state parties, its law is harder to enforce than in New Hampshire, where the primary election is run by the state.
A 1996 opinion issued by the Iowa Attorney General's office found that Iowa could not require political parties to change the date of their caucuses to be in compliance with that code section without raising constitutional questions.
With the unsettled nature of things, Brennan said, other states might try to make moves as well.
“I don’t know that it precludes anyone from moving,” he said. “Nevada is desperate to be first. I don’t know that they’re just going to sit behind South Carolina. Maybe that’s their strategy, but they’ve been making noises for a long time that they were going to move, so I guess we’ll see.”
Some states will need to change laws or get buy-in from Republicans
Other states in the new early window will need to begin figuring out whether they can comply with the contingencies and change their state laws.
South Carolina’s date is set by the party chair and is relatively flexible. But in Nevada and Michigan, it is set by state law.
Nevada’s law sets the primary for the first Tuesday in February. And legislators in Michigan have already begun the process of changing their state law, passing legislation that would move the state's presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February.
Democrats take full control of Michigan's government in January, alleviating any concerns the committee had about the state’s ability to change its date.
In Georgia, the primary date is set by the secretary of state, a role held by Republican Brad Raffensperger.
“Why would you want to have attention lavished on Georgia Democrats if Georgia Republicans can't move into the pre-window?” asked Brennan.
Republicans have already set the order of their 2024 nominating calendar with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and then Nevada holding contests. No other state is allowed to go before March 1 without triggering sanctions.
“So if I'm (Raffensperger), I certainly wouldn't let it happen,” Brennan said. “The reason people want to have these early contests is because they're excellent organizing tools, in my mind. And it brings resources and attention. So to let the Democrats go and the GOP not go is crazy.”
Michigan Republicans will face a similar choice: Move up their primary to match Democrats’ calendar and risk sanctions, or remain in compliance with their own party.
Calendar will go before Iowa Democrats’ State Central Committee
The calendar now goes before the Iowa Democrats’ State Central Committee. Some members cheered the move toward diversity and others lamented what will be lost.
C.J. Petersen, Stonewall Caucus chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a voting member of the State Central Committee, said in a statement to the Des Moines Register that he supports the calendar change.
“Iowa has had its turn,” he said. “It’s time to let other states be part of the early conversation when it comes to choosing our party’s nominees for president. I will vote to accept the DNC recommendation when it comes before us" at the State Central Committee.
Brian McLain, chair of the party’s Progressive Caucus, said many progressives also approve of the DNC's proposed changes to the calendar.
"We are happy to see more marginalized populations get a better voice in the future country," McLain said.
However, he recognized that Iowa Democrats and progressive presidential candidates may feel the sting of the new lineup. McLain pointed to the popularity of candidates like Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama, who ran and won in Iowa with progressive messaging.
"We're not sure exactly how the change-up is going to affect things or allow for possible progressive stars to rise up," he said. "But again, that's just one factor in many. And ultimately, it's the voice of the people that matters most to us."
USAT TODAY reporter Francesca Chambers and Des Moines Register reporter Katie Akin contributed to this story.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Does the Democrats’ new presidential calendar invite chaos in 2023?