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Earlier primary dates may speed up season
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The 2014 election season will get off to a quicker-than-usual start in Georgia with the state's Primary Election set for May 20, nearly two full months earlier than the traditional mid-July date.

The change will affect voters - by pushing up voter registration dates and making it likely more voters will be around to vote in person before summer holidays kick in - and candidates, who will need to decide if they're running earlier and if they should begin campaigning earlier.

The earlier dates are the result of a federal judge's 2013 court order, which required Georgia to meet a federal law requiring a 45-day period between an election and a runoff. The 45-day period is aimed at giving overseas military personnel time to vote in a runoff; Georgia has only had a three-week break between an election and runoff.

While the federal judge's order only applies to federal elections, county officials in Georgia won't want to pay to hold separate elections for federal offices and state and local positions. Sen. Rick Jeffares (R-Locust Grove, a floor leader and chairman of the ethics commission, said a bill to change state and local elections is likely to be introduced the first day of the legislative session, Jan. 13.

Assuming the bill becomes law, any Georgian planning to run for federal, state or local office will need to qualify to run for office much earlier as well, between March 3 and March 7 (independent candidates must qualify before June 27 to participate in the general election).

On the other side, voters must be registered to vote by April 21 in order to vote in the primary, with early voting set to start April 28. Some state leaders believe the earlier Primary will increase participation.

"If you wait until June or July, a lot of people are out of school and run to Florida. If we do it May before schools lets out, I think it's our best chance to get people to show up to vote," Jeffares said, adding it gives legislators a chance to actually have a summer vacation. "I'm happy moving it up."

Faster legislative session

The election date changes are also expected to speed up the pace of business in Atlanta, and the Georgia General Assembly could wrap up its business by mid-March because of a state law that doesn't allow sitting legislators to raise campaign funds while the General Assembly is in session. Challengers don't have the same restrictions.

Jeffares said Republican leaders are aiming to end the session March 16, a month or two before the session normally wraps up.

"The Republican caucus is meeting Monday to talk about all the things we need to do and to do it all quick," he said Thursday.

Jeffares said he didn't think the faster session would really affect business, because the General Assembly is in the second year of a two-year cycle and many bills are already pending from 2013. Jeffares said the first couple weeks of session generally start off slower, so the shortened session might prompt people to get up to full speed from day one.

In addition, any legislators trying to get a bill passed in 2014 can pre-file their bill before the session starts to give it a better chance of being heard early, he said.

Top priorities

The budget will once again be the top priority, Jeffares said, and state officials face more difficult decisions as revenues haven't grown as much as hoped.

The only other hot topic Jeffares sees for the 2014 session is the renewal of 2013 talks to expand gun access across the state. The bill died last year mainly over the issue of whether to allow concealed guns to be carried on most parts of college campuses. The bill also would allow concealed guns in most public buildings, public housing and in bars and churches that opted to allow guns, among other changes.

Much of the state's focus will be on the races for governor and U.S. Senate, Jeffares said, with Jimmy Carter's grandson Jason Carter's entrance into the governor's race adding some intrigue.