New Hampshire lawmakers hope to erase any doubt that the state intends to continue holding the nation's first presidential primary election by making a small but important change to state law.
The House is set to vote Wednesday to give the secretary of state wider latitude in setting the primary's date to protect the state's tradition of being first. The Senate votes on the measure next if it passes the House, and it is widely expected to become law.
Rep. Jim Splaine, a Portsmouth Democrat, sponsored the bill to guarantee that New Hampshire voters choose candidates before every state besides Iowa — and even earlier than Iowa — if necessary to ensure being first.
State law currently requires the primary to be held seven days or more before any similar contest. The bill would attach the secretary of state's rights to that law and notes that its purpose is to protect the tradition of New Hampshire being first.
"This legislation puts the word 'tradition' in our law," Splaine said Friday.
The bill would give the secretary of state the flexibility "to interpret other elections such as caucuses or conventions the way he determines is necessary to protect our primary status," Splaine said.
Many party activists and voters say the presidential selection process starts too early, but states have resisted efforts to limit their powers to pick primary dates.
The first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire bring those states enormous attention from presidential candidates and the media. New Hampshire steadfastly guards its role, pointing to its engaged electorate as evidence that its voters do a good job at winnowing the field.
Candidates know that winning New Hampshire's primary can propel their campaigns. Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reignited their campaigns after winning the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
Jealous of all the attention, other states contend they better represent the nation than Iowa and New Hampshire, which have fewer people and less racial or ethnic diversity. They even challenged New Hampshire's tradition in the 2008 presidential primaries.
That led to the Iowa caucus being held on Jan. 3, 2008, and the New Hampshire primary five days later, on Jan. 8.
Secretary of State William Gardner waited until Nov. 21, 2007, to set the Jan. 8 primary date to make sure it would come before nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina. Those states and six others broke national party rules by scheduling their contests before Feb. 5.
Democrats penalized Florida and Michigan delegates to the national party convention by counting only half their votes, while Republicans stripped votes from those states and three others, including New Hampshire.
The national Democratic calendar had called for the primary to be held Jan. 22 that year. After the New Hampshire secretary of state set the Jan. 8 date, state party leaders sought and got a waiver from the national party to have its delegates seated at the national convention.
Even if New Hampshire is stripped of delegates next time around, by holding the first primary it will retain its influence in selecting the next president, Splaine said.
The Democratic National Committee declined to comment Friday.
Democratic Party leaders are trying to shorten the presidential primary process, which lasted 11 months in 2008.
A national Democratic advisory commission recommended last month that 2012's earliest voting, such as the Democratic Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, not occur before Feb. 1. All but a handful of party primaries would take place after the second Tuesday in March under the recommendations by the commission.
The recommendations will be reviewed by a panel of the DNC and later by the full committee.
"The parties can do whatever they want," Splaine said, "but what they cannot do is figure out a way, they've never been able to figure out a way, to be able to tell New Hampshire it has to follow a certain schedule."