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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Earlier date for primary will broaden ballot access

The Washington Legislature has moved the state’s primary election once over concerns that there isn’t enough time between the primary and general elections. It will need to do it again, because that window is still proving to be too tight.

A few years ago, the state’s primary was moved from the middle of September to the middle of August. But it has become clear that to comply with the federal voting law aimed at widening ballot access to military members, the state will need to move the primary again.

Senate Bill 5171 accomplishes that goal, and it has sailed through that chamber on a 47-1 vote. The House should pass its companion bill that does the same. The two bills would also require candidates to file for offices three weeks sooner.

If the bill is enacted, this year’s primary would be on Aug. 2 instead of Aug. 16.

Federal voting rights law mandates that counties mail military and overseas ballots 45 days before the general election.

The current primary date gives election officials 52 to 60 days to count those votes, produce the general election ballot and mail it. Under ideal circumstances, officials can meet the deadline, but if any complications arise – lawsuits, recounts for extremely close races, printing errors – the deadline is in jeopardy.

Last year, the state secured a federal waiver from the 45-day rule, but it was warned not to expect routine exceptions to the rule. In essence, the state doesn’t really have much choice but to hold the primary election sooner.

The last time the primary was moved, some lawmakers complained that it would give them little time to raise money between the end of the legislative session and the primary. That concern has been raised again, but lawmakers will have to find ways to manage. Improving the efficiency of this process is more important.

An earlier primary will also present challenges to informed voters, who will have to engage the election process in late spring and early summer. But either way, summer vacations will still present challenges for candidates and voters.

The federal law is worth supporting, because it ensures robust participation from military members, who have responded well. In the 2008 election, 73 percent of overseas voters returned their ballots in Washington state, and 99 percent of them were counted.

Though compliance is admirable, the state should not risk being hauled into federal court for missing this deadline.

Move up the primary.

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