The problem with a March 8 presidential primary

Voters line up at a precinct in Conover to cast votes in the primary in May 2012.
Voters line up at a precinct in Conover to cast votes in the primary in May 2012. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Voter turnout is bad enough already – especially in primaries. Now legislators are headed toward making a change that threatens to dampen turnout even more – and cost millions to boot.

The N.C. House voted 111-1 on Wednesday to move the state’s presidential primary next year to March 8. But the primaries for all the other offices – U.S. Senate, Congress, governor, legislature, county commissioners and other seats – would be split off and remain in May.

House Bill 457 is a bad move for two reasons: It would cost an additional $4 million or so to hold primaries on two days, including about $500,000 just for Mecklenburg County. And it would surely lower turnout. In the past, N.C. voters have cast ballots for president and all other races on the same day. Split them up and voters have less incentive and higher hurdles to voting.

Turnout jumps in presidential years because of the interest in the top of the ticket. Midterm turnout in the 2014 primary was 15.8 percent and in the 2010 primary was 14 percent. It more than doubles in the primaries of presidential years, to 37 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in 2012.

Moving North Carolina’s primary up to March 8 makes sense in that it gives the state more relevance in the presidential race. And it puts the state within Republican Party rules that would have penalized North Carolina for voting right after South Carolina in February. But the Senate should amend the bill to move all the other primaries to March 8 too. It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do, saving $4 million, and it would avoid voters having to trudge to the polls twice within two months. Taylor Batten