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Arizona primary elections might be held earlier in August

Maricopa County – the state’s largest county – already has received about half a million early ballots. Officials have mailed out a record 1.5 million early ballots for the Nov. 8 election. (Photo by Dana Lewandowski/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A bill that would move up the date of the Arizona primary election passed through the House Elections Committee on a party line vote Tuesday afternoon.

Senate Bill 1154 would change the date of the primary elections from the 10th Tuesday before a general election to the first Tuesday in August. The bill will head to the Rules Committee next.

During the committee hearing, several people who opposed the bill objected not to the idea, but to small, technical errors in drafting the bill. Moving the primary date requires moving every other deadline in the election process. Republican Sen. David Gowan, who introduced the bill, said there is a “trailer bill” that is meant to fix any errors in SB 1154.

Betty McEntire, director of legislative affairs with the Secretary of State’s Office, said the bill does not address concerns with “grandfathering” signatures candidates may gather before the date change.

Alex Vidal, legislative associate with League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said several cities would need to change their charters to reflect the new primary date.

Gowan said he is “willing to do what we need to do” to fix the bill as it moves forward.

More ‘buffer’ time for election officials

Jennifer Marson, executive director at the Arizona Association of Counties, said county election professionals have long advocated for more time between the primary and general elections. Primaries usually fall around the third week in August, so the bill would give counties about two extra weeks to prepare ballots for the general election.

“It’s such a tight turnaround that from an elections administrative perspective, the more time we have between those two elections the better,” she said.

If challenges to primary tallies are filed in court, the courts need time to litigate. Although counties have not had many issues preparing ballots on time in previous elections, Marson said officials may not know which races could take longer to count and could be challenged in court.

Also, under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, officials must send ballots to U.S. citizens residing overseas, including members of the military, 45 days before the general election.

“We have to have those ballots in the mail 45 days before the general and there are only 70 days between the primary and the general. That’s not a lot of wiggle room,” Marson said.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has considered moving the primary date. In 2009, it approved a bill that, among other changes, moved the primary election from the ninth Tuesday before the general to the 10th Tuesday, Marson said.

Changing the primary date also means changing all the other dates in the election process, such as when candidates must file their petition signatures or when the counties will send out early ballots.

Not much of a change, little impact

Tom Collins, executive director of the Arizona Clean Elections Commission, said voters would have to familiarize themselves with the new calendar so they won’t be surprised when early ballots show up weeks ahead of usual.

“It’s much more about trying to get the election process to run a little bit more efficiently and the sacrifice being asked of voters is to adjust their behavior just a little bit,” he said.

For incumbent candidates who aren’t running through the Clean Elections Commission, the time after the legislative session and the primaries are important. During session, certain sources of money, specifically lobbyist contributions, are off-limits. But Collins said most sessions don’t last until August, so it shouldn’t impact their fundraising too much.

“It’s less of a substantial change in what is going to be delivered, and more just a shifting of the calendar,” he said.

An even earlier primary date

Some states have their primary elections earlier in the year. Illinois held its 2018 primary on March 20 and Kentucky on May 22. And some supporters of the bill advocate for an even earlier primary in Arizona than what has been proposed.

Murphy Bannerman, spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said the party has not taken an official stance on the bill, but said that moving up the date would give more time for independent and swing voters to make a decision in the general election.

She said that the party is open to earlier dates because it gives more time to consolidate their base, and the same goes for the GOP.

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