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2020 primary

Moving the 2020 presidential primary would be costly, confuse voters and create administrative headaches, local clerks say.

Changing the date of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary, as Republican state leaders are considering, would be costly to taxpayers, confusing to voters and may not even be feasible, according to local clerks who run elections.

Moving the presidential primary from April to March, as is reportedly being discussed, would schedule three statewide elections in a three-month window in 2020: a February spring primary, March presidential primary and April spring general election.

Republican legislators may be considering the change to help a Gov. Scott Walker appointee to the state Supreme Court win a new term. As it now stands, the seat held by that conservative-backed appointee, Justice Daniel Kelly, would be on the ballot the same date as the presidential primary, when Democratic voters would be likely to turn out in greater numbers than Republicans, whose nominee is expected to be President Donald Trump.

Moving the presidential primary could also carry additional electoral upside for the GOP, according to Josh Putnam, a University of North Carolina-Wilmington expert on the presidential nomination process.

“Turning out for three elections in three months runs the risk of driving up voter fatigue and driving down turnout. The latter is seen as potentially advantageous to Republicans,” Putnam wrote on his blog.

State Senate Republicans are likely to discuss moving the presidential primary in a closed caucus meeting Tuesday. Gov. Scott Walker also acknowledged last week that he has spoken with GOP lawmakers about the concept.

Wisconsin local clerks, who administer elections, have largely panned the idea. Thirty-seven county clerks, representing more than half of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, signed an open letter saying a March presidential primary would “waste taxpayer money, create logistical nightmares for clerks and greatly confuse voters.”

Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, a Democrat, said local clerks already struggle to keep pace with the spring election cycle. Sandwiching another statewide election into it “is a real problem for us,” he said.

“What’s at stake here is people’s faith in our system,” McDonell said. “What if there’s a recount in the March election? I don’t know how we would run the April election.”

The move also would be costly. Local clerks estimated the 2016 spring election cost nearly $7 million. County clerks, in their recent joint letter, said holding a standalone presidential primary likely would cost more.

“A much larger amount would be needed to carry out two elections in the same period,” the county clerks wrote.

State law now requires the presidential primary be held the same day as the spring election. In 2020, that is April 7.

In 2004 and 2008, Wisconsin held its presidential primary in tandem with the February spring primary election. But national political party rules about the primary calendar now make that unlikely.

Last week, Walker declined to address questions about whether moving the presidential vote is about decoupling it from the state Supreme Court election. Walker said he finds it odd that a nonpartisan election, such as the Supreme Court election, would be held on the same date as a partisan election, such as the presidential primary.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.