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Senator seeks to move Arkansas primary election from May to March

by Michael R. Wickline | February 11, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, is shown in this 2016 file photo.

A state senator wants the Legislature to move the 2020 primary election from its usual May date to March, to accommodate that year's presidential primaries.

A similar move was made for the 2016 primary elections. Lawmakers temporarily shifted the year's first elections from May to March 1 for the southern regional presidential primary.

The primary election traditionally is held in late May. Under state law, the date is defined as four weeks before the third Tuesday in June, when the runoff election is held.

At the request of GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson in a 2015 special session, the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted bills shifting the date of the 2016 primary election to March 1 and the beginning of the 2016 fiscal legislation session from February, its normal start time, to April.

The move was designed to create the "SEC Primary" with other Southern states and to bolster the role of Arkansas and the region in the presidential primary process. The SEC is the Southeastern Conference, an athletic conference that covers much of the South.

In 2016, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee lost the state GOP presidential primary, which was won by Donald Trump. Former Arkansas first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination in the state and the country.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

In its current form, Senate Bill 276, sponsored by state Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, would set the primary election in February 2020. But Garner said Thursday that he aims to move the primary election to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March, which would be March 3, 2020. Garner said he plans to fix the bill with an amendment today.

The 2016 primary election "had a lot of energy and candidates coming here, and I think it worked out well for everybody involved," he said. Trump was among those coming to the state.

"Let's have that same success," Garner said.

"We are determining through the committee process whether to make [the March primary] permanent or not," Garner said. SB276 is in the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"My thought process is we should [make it permanently held in March] because it was so successful. But that will be determined by the committee," Garner said. "I am very open to listening to the will of the body and the committee to determine if that's what we need to do to move forward."

State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said the party supports Garner's legislation.

"The change allows us to comply with party rules in the selection of delegates to the [Republican National Convention]," Webb said in a text message to this newspaper.

As to whether this would be a permanent or temporary change in the primary election, Webb said, "That would be up to the Legislature and the governor."

Webb said, "under RNC rules, this is the first Tuesday [that] states who allow proportional representation to the national convention can ... allocate delegates. I anticipate that it could [turn] into a SEC primary or Super Tuesday."

The state Democratic Party doesn't have an official position on SB276, said Reed Brewer, a party spokesman.

"Given that the Democrats will have a contested primary election in 2020, it would be an excellent opportunity for Arkansas to have an early say in the nominating process," Brewer said in an email to this newspaper. "However, moving the primary election would elongate the general election, which might place a strain on the candidates here in the state. We look forward to talk about these concerns with the bill's sponsor."

Hutchinson said Thursday in a written statement, "Historically, we've had the earlier date for presidential years and kept non-presidential elections in May.

"I want to discuss this with Sen. Garner so that I can learn what he is thinking about the date change before I make up my mind," the Republican governor said.

Chris Powell, who works for Republican Secretary of State John Thurston, said the office is neutral on SB276. The secretary of state's office oversees elections.

SundayMonday on 02/11/2019

Print Headline: Senator seeks to move Arkansas primary election from May to March


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