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Democrats vote overwhelmingly to change the party's primary calendar

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first two states to hold presidential caucuses or primaries. But members of the Democratic National Committee met in Philadelphia to approve a calendar for 2024, and it removes the Iowa caucuses from the early lineup and boosts states they say are more representative of the Democratic Party's diversity. NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAIME HARRISON: All those in favor of approving the report, say aye.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBERS: Aye.

HARRISON: All opposed, nay.

UNIDENTIFIED MEMBERS: Nay.

HARRISON: The ayes have it. And the...

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: With that, DNC members upended their presidential primary calendar and ushered in a new era, one that DNC Chair Jaime Harrison says is long overdue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON: It elevates diverse communities that are at the core of the Democratic Party.

SPRUNT: The DNC was looking at factors like diversity of the electorate and voter access when it began the process of changing the calendar nearly a year ago. Here's DNC member Mo Elleithee.

MO ELLEITHEE: We've held lots of listening sessions and solicited input from DNC stakeholders from every region of the country, heard directly from 20 states and territories that wanted to get into the early window.

SPRUNT: The resulting calendar, which President Biden advocated for, in many ways rewards states that helped propel him to the White House in 2020, particularly South Carolina, which will now go first. New Hampshire and Nevada are to follow for a joint primary day. And Georgia and Michigan round out the early window. But the sweeping calendar changes are not without hurdles. Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, has said both party's primaries must be held on the same day to minimize election administration costs. And Republicans aren't planning to have Georgia in the early window. Wendy Davis, a DNC member from Georgia, said Democrats have to convince Republicans that moving up the primary isn't just good for Democrats; it's good for the state.

WENDY DAVIS: People who are running for president will be buying radio ads on our little radio stations. I mean, and that is an influx of revenue that, if we're Super Tuesday, they don't get.

SPRUNT: And then there's New Hampshire, which has traditionally held the first primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOANNE DOWDELL: This is not in this moment about New Hampshire's history or our pride. This is about state law that we cannot unilaterally change.

SPRUNT: That's Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire. She points to a state law that gives the secretary of state, currently a Republican, the power to move the date of the primary to protect its first-in-the-nation status. Republicans also control the governorship, the House and the Senate in the state, something that puts New Hampshire Democrats in a no-win position, according to state party Chair Ray Buckley.

RAY BUCKLEY: We know that New Hampshire will still hold the first-in-the-nation primary, whether or not the DNC approves of it.

SPRUNT: But if that happens, Elleithee says the DNC is prepared to mete out consequences.

ELLEITHEE: They wouldn't be the first time states have tried to jump the line. And I hope it doesn't come to that. But I think the DNC is probably better prepared to enforce this calendar than it ever has been.

SPRUNT: Those enforcements include stripping the state of its delegates and precluding presidential candidates from campaigning there. Both New Hampshire and Georgia have received extensions on meeting the DNC's requirements. Those open questions aren't good for the party, says Iowa DNC member Scott Brennan.

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SCOTT BRENNAN: We are creating a situation of continued uncertainty that will drag on throughout 2023. We can vote on this calendar. We can approve this calendar. But we will leave here with absolutely nothing settled.

SPRUNT: A panel of the DNC will meet again in June to evaluate where things stand. Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.