Changes likely for Georgia elections

by Sarah Fay Campbell

Actions taken by the U.S. Department of Justice against the state of Georgia will mean a big change in elections next year.

A federal judge recently set the state's election schedule for federal elections — decreeing that there will be two months between the primary election and the runoff — rather than the typical 21 days. There will also have to be two months between the November general election and any needed runoff — possibly pushing the election of a new U.S. senator until after the Senate convenes for 2014.

The court-ordered election schedule only applies to federal elections, and doesn't affect state elections.

However, it's likely the state schedule will be changed to line up with the federal schedule.

The new schedule has the qualifying period for federal offices set for March 17 through 21. The primary would be June 3. The runoff election would be Aug. 5.

The general election would be Nov. 4, and a runoff would be Jan. 6.

The Georgia Secretary of State's office is working with Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly to address the difference in the federal and state election calendars, said Cody Whitlock with the secretary of state's office.

The current state schedule has the primary in July, with the runoff 21 days later. Changing the state election schedule would require the passage of legislation in the General Assembly.

"That is a possible avenue," Whitlock said. Appealing the decision is another one.

"We are looking at all options," he said.

The issue that led to the action is the timeline for mailing out ballots to those living outside the United States. Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), ballots must be mailed at least 45 days before an election. Since the runoff was only 21 days after the election, that was impossible.

The UOCAVA law has been in effect since 1986, but it was modified in 2009 by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act.

Having two separate election schedules would be confusing for voters, to say the least.

"I don't think that will happen," said Brant Frost V, chairman of the Coweta County Republican Party. "What seems most likely is that the legislature will have to set new dates."

Frost is concerned about the January runoff date, which could lead to a Georgia senator or representative not being elected until after the new Congress is in session.

He worries the scheduling issue could eventually lead to the state doing away with runoffs in the general election. Instead, the election would go to the top vote-getter, with no requirement the winner get 50 percent of the vote.

One way to fix that would be with "instant runoff" voting. With instant runoff, voters rank multiple candidates. If their first choice doesn't make it into the top two, votes are recounted with the second choice, and so on, until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote.

There are some members in the legislature who are looking into that possibility, Frost said. It would certainly be cheaper than the current system.

And Frost thinks it would cut down on some of the negativity in campaigns. "It may encourage people to be a little less confrontational about their candidates," he said. Candidates might spend less time saying negative things about their opponents and more time talking about why they are the right candidate. He's not sure instant runoff voting will ever be put into place in Georgia. "Some might say there is a sentiment in the legislature that they just don't want to try to do anything grand, anything bold," he said.

Frost said he thinks political parties should have more choice in how they determine their nominees. "My personal belief is that nomination by convention is cheaper," Frost said, and it would cut down on the amount of money candidates need to raise to be successful.

However, Frost said he's not sure the federal judge has the power to demand Georgia adopt a new election schedule.

"Some would say the federal court has no jurisdiction over this matter," he said.

Coweta County Democratic Party Vice Chairman Dee Crouch said she doesn't mind the stretched out voting schedule, but she thinks there might be better ways to make sure military ballots are counted, such as allowing electronic voting.

"We probably should make it easier for them to vote," she said. Crouch is an attorney and said that, at the state bar, "we do all of our elections by electronic voting."

We've got mechanisms in place so you can't vote twice," she said.

"I think we're currently sophisticated enough that we could do that."

The longer runoff season could certainly lead to a more bruising runoff campaign.

And some state pundits have said that could work in favor of Democrats, because it will almost certainly be Republicans who are involved in the bruising runoff fights.

Crouch doesn't see it that way. "If the Republicans want to beat each other up they can do that," she said. "I don't know that the Democratic candidate is going to benefit from that."



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