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story.lead_photo.caption In this 2018 file photo Doyle Webb (center), chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party, speaks during the party’s state convention. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

An Arkansas House committee Wednesday advanced a bill under which Arkansas would hold its primary election in March in presidential election years and in May in gubernatorial election years.

In a split voice vote, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee recommended House approval of Senate Bill 445 by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado.

The action came after state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb testified for the bill. Meanwhile, officials representing county clerks, school boards and the Libertarian Party expressed their misgivings about it. The bill narrowly cleared the 35-member Senate last Thursday in an 18-7 vote.

For decades, party primary elections were held in late May.

Asked why he supports the proposed changes in light of county clerks' concerns about confusing voters, Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters, "I thought that we had actually set the pattern for that in the last four years.

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

"We moved it in my first term to a March 1 date to participate in the SEC primary [in 2016] and then we moved it back to May; and when we moved it to May for the gubernatorial election in a non-presidential year, it was understood that we would be moving it back at that time. So in my mind we have established this pattern so this legislation carries it out," the governor said after speaking Wednesday to the Political Animals Club in Little Rock.

At Hutchinson's request, the Republican-controlled Legislature met in a special session in 2015 and shifted the date of the 2016 primary election to March 1. The 2016 fiscal session was shifted from February, which would have been 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, a collegiate athletic conference.

In 2016, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Arkansas first lady Hillary Clinton ran for their respective parties' presidential nominations.

Clinton won Arkansas' primary and the Democratic presidential nomination. Huckabee, who had dropped out by then, was still on the Arkansas primary ballot. He lost the Arkansas primary and the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump.

Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, told the House committee that the trial run with a March presidential primary was successful in 2016 and that March elections should be made permanent in presidential election years. (The state also had an early primary in February 2008.)

The bill also would move the fiscal legislative session -- held in even-numbered years -- from its normal start time in February to April in presidential election years.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he worried that fewer farmers and contractors would run for the Legislature if the fiscal session is held in April in presidential election years because they are extremely busy from April through July.

But Hodges said lawmakers of other professions such as certified public accountants won't like holding the fiscal session in February in gubernatorial election years. The Legislature also tends to have a lower workload in fiscal sessions and that helps lawmakers in a variety of professions, he said.

When the primary election is held in late May, the candidate filing period is in March. Those would stay the same in gubernatorial election years under SB445.

The primary election would be held on March 3 in 2020. The party filing period would begin in November.

Also under SB445, school elections would be held on either the primary election date or the general election date in even-numbered years.

In odd-numbered years, school elections would be on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November or on the third Tuesday in May.

A Section on 03/14/2019

Print Headline: Plan for primary election in March gets panel support

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