Lawmakers consider moving primary date back 3 weeks

PHOENIX -- Arizona voters may find themselves besieged by candidates -- and their campaign signs -- a lot earlier come 2016.

Without dissent, the House Elections Committee voted Monday to move the biennial primary into early August. That is three weeks earlier than the current date.

But the vote on HB 2138 may not be the end of the debate.

The measure now goes to the full House. But at this point there clearly is no consensus.

For example, Secretary of State Michele Reagan prefers moving the primary even earlier, into June.

And Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, sponsor of HB 2138, actually wants to have the intra-party squabbles even earlier than that. He likes the idea of a primary on the third Tuesday in May.

On top of that, the same panel approved HB 2644 which would allow campaign signs to go up 86 days before any election -- more than three weeks earlier that now permitted. Rep. Michele Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said that ensures that signs can go up before early voting starts.

What all that means is that campaign signs could start cropping up as early as February.

At the same time, those who win the primary can keep those signs in place until weeks after the general election. And that means those same signs that go up in the winter could mean they remain in place until late November.

Shope admitted that his desire for an earlier primary -- which means earlier campaign signs with or without HB 2644 -- is designed at least in part to help people win in November.

He said it is not unusual for there to be a highly contested partisan primary. That produces a winner -- but one who may be badly damaged, at least politically speaking, and left in a weakened condition to take on the candidate from the other major party.

Shope said his HB 2138 would possibly "create a little bit more time to heal the wounds after a bruising primary.' And he said it would provide "a clear separation between elections.'

The question for lawmakers was how much time.

Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said Shope's idea of a May primary would put legislators in the position of having to seek reelection while they were still at the Capitol.

Time to campaign aside, Ugenti said a May primary presents a separate problem: State law precludes legislators from taking donations from registered lobbyists during the session, a restriction does not apply to their unelected challengers.

"So you've got to wait until session is over,' Ugenti said of collecting lobbyist dollars. "And so there's a disadvantage for incumbents who won't be able to (financially) compete with others who are running in the race who would be able to raise funds during that time when we would be prohibited.'

Weninger said that still leaves the questions of campaign signs.

"I can tell you, constituents pretty much don't like the signs,' he said. "And they don't want them up for an extra three months because somebody doesn't want to take them back down and put them back up again.'

Shope said if the primary election date is moved up there would have to be stricter enforcement of existing laws that require losing candidates to take down their signs. But he had no response to the question of the winner's signs which could go up 60 days before the primary -- 86 under the terms of the other measure -- and remain for month after month.

The measure on voter-proposed laws makes a small but significant change in the rules that govern the rules about initiative petitions.

Current law requires only that citizen groups "substantially' comply with the requirements to get a measure on the ballot. HB 2407 would spell out there must be "strict compliance' with the law. And that could mean groups could gather hundreds of thousands of signatures for a measure, only to have it removed from the ballot for technical reasons.

This is more than an academic debate.

For example, it is not unheard of for a signer to put in an incorrect date.

Under the current law, a judge reviewing petitions has concluded in prior ballot measures that the wrong date is a harmless error and let the signature stand. But Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said HB 2407 would mean the signature does not court.

Similarly, courts allowed a public vote on one measure to hike sales taxes hike when an incorrect version was filed with state election officials. And voters got to decide on another which would have mandated a longer warrant for home buyers even though supporters failed to include a formal title.

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