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Court order impacts more than election dates

Posted: July 20, 2013 - 11:04pm

ATLANTA — When federal Judge Steve C. Jones ordered the date changed for Georgia’s federal elections, he set in motion a series of political changes, as well.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced the order Friday as the outcome of a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice had filed against the state.

Even though Jones and Kemp are both Athens natives, the hometown ties were not enough for Kemp to win.

“We are buddies. He just made a wrong decision,” Kemp said.

Jones lengthened the election by moving candidate qualifying and the primary election earlier in the year and extending the general election into the next year when a runoff is required. A longer election is unlikely to enthuse voters, candidates or political donors.

Observers uniformly describe longer campaigns as costlier and more negative.

Candidate qualifying will be in March during the legislative session. The primary will be in early June rather than mid-July. And a general-election runoff would be Jan. 6, requiring candidates to campaign during the holiday season and for the winner to be sworn in after Congress has already begun.

Jones’ order only affects elections for federal office, and Kemp is working with state leaders to decide whether to change state and local elections, too, to avoid the expense and confusion of multiple primaries and runoffs.

They are also deciding whether to appeal.

The Justice Department lawyers argued the change was needed to comply with federal law that is designed to provide ample time for voters deployed in the military to send back their ballots.

That’s despite the agency having signed a memorandum of understanding years ago with the state agreeing to Georgia’s method of sending blank, write-in runoff ballots to everyone overseas who requests an absentee ballot for a primary or general election.

In the last federal, primary runoff not a single ballot arrived too late to be counted.

That’s why Kemp smells an ulterior motive.

“I really view this as a political move by the Obama Justice Department to get rid of runoffs,” he said.

Plurality elections, like most states have, reward the contender getting the most votes, even if the majority preferred other candidates.

That often benefits someone from a political minority.

In a primary with three conservatives and one moderate, the trio often splits the conservative vote while the moderate gets all of the moderates and liberals.

Although the moderate might be far short of a majority in a conservative state and would certainly lose a runoff, he wins in a plurality state if his share of the vote is bigger than the slivers each member of the conservative threesome is left with.

Over the years, runoffs have given Georgia Republicans victories they would have missed in plurality states.

The new dates mean legislators running for higher office will resign midterm to escape the legal prohibition against fundraising when the General Assembly is in session, thereby triggering special elections.

It will mean they’ll have to raise extra money for a longer primary runoff period which will be increasingly negative since attacks done through press releases cost less than advertisements. And they’ll be running ads during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s period when merchants do their main advertising.

“I’ve been in a summer runoff, and I can tell you, three weeks is brutal,” Kemp said. “I can’t imagine going a little over three months.”

Veteran political consultant Mark Rountree of Landmark Communication has the same suspicions as Kemp.

Rountree believes absentee-ballot campaigns are ineffective at stimulating votes or altering the outcome of elections anyway.

“It’s almost as if the feds wanted to make it as painful as possible to have runoffs,” he said.

From a practical standpoint, a June primary may draw in older volunteers who don’t have the stamina to go door to door in July heat but might in milder June weather, he speculated.

Plus, students could be engaged in their final weeks of school in ways unlikely after they scatter for the summer recess.

However, Rountree draws from experience owning vacation-rental property to predict that just as many people will be out of town in June as in July.

Plus, polling will be harder when people are preoccupied with the end-of-school projects or the Christmas holidays rather than politics.

The mass media will be awash in other messages those times.

“It almost makes direct communication more important,” he said.

Some observers have speculated Jones’ order will benefit Democrats in next year’s U.S. Senate race by leaving the Republican nominee even bloodier after the elongated primary runoff.

On the other hand, the presence of a Libertarian nominee increases the likelihood of a general-election runoff which Rountree predicts only the most diehard voters will participate in, suggesting that will benefit Republicans.

No one really knows. The candidates and their strategists simply have to adjust.

As Charles Darwin concluded, those who adapt best to changing conditions are the ones who prevail.

(Walter Jones, the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service, can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com and (404) 589-8424.)

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