There are many factors that will have an impact on next year’s U.S. Senate race: the quality of the candidates, the strategies developed by their consultants, the amount of money they raise.
There is one person, however, who could have an even bigger impact on that race.
That would be Judge Steve C. Jones, formerly a Clarke County jurist who was appointed to the U.S. District Court bench in 2011.
Jones is presiding over a lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against Georgia and Secretary of State Brian Kemp in his capacity as the state’s chief elections officer.
The lawsuit attacks Georgia’s system of holding runoff elections on the grounds that runoffs don’t provide enough time for military personnel and citizens living overseas to cast absentee ballots. Federal law requires that they have at least 45 days to send in ballots, but runoffs are held 21 days after a primary election and 28 days after the general election.
Jones signed an order April 30 ruling in favor of the Justice Department. He told the state to come up with a solution for providing that 45-day window for absentee ballots, or “the Court will order an appropriate remedy that will govern all of Georgia’s future runoff elections.”
Kemp has proposed a change in procedures for the 2014 elections to comply with the judge’s order. The primary runoff elections are scheduled for Aug. 5. To meet the 45-day requirement, Kemp says military and overseas voters could be given until Sept. 9 to return their absentee runoff ballots by mail – five weeks after the runoff election has been held.
The general election is set for Nov. 4, with a runoff if necessary on Dec. 2. Kemp has proposed that overseas voters could return those ballots as late as Dec. 30 – which would be nearly a month after the runoff election is held.
Those are solutions that would be awkward to implement, especially for a close race that might be decided by those last few absentee ballots. It would be unfair to candidates and voters to make them wait four or five weeks to determine who won a runoff election.
What happens if Kemp’s proposal is rejected by Jones and the Legislature is then unable to pass a bill next session that amends the state’s election code? You could very well see the elimination of runoff elections for federal offices.
That would be the most significant development in state politics since the abolition of the county unit system in the early 1960s. A political consultant who has run a few campaigns in Georgia summed it up this way: “It would change everything.”
Under the current system, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary election, then a runoff is held between the top two finishers on the ballot.
Runoffs often can weed out the more extreme candidates in a primary election, because supporters of the other candidates can unite to beat them in the runoff.
A recent example is the Democratic primary in the 2008 Senate race. Vernon Jones, who had been the controversial CEO of DeKalb County, finished ahead of former legislator Jim Martin in the primary but did not reach the 50 percent threshold. Martin beat Jones in the runoff when supporters of the other candidates teamed up to give Martin their votes.
Without a runoff, the candidate who finishes first in the primary election is the winner, no matter how low a percentage of the vote he or she gets.
Think of the implications for the Republican primary in next year’s Senate race. Someone like Paul Broun, who’s more conservative than a mainstream candidate like Karen Handel or Jack Kingston, might only have to get 30 to 35 percent of the vote to win the primary – he wouldn’t have to worry about being forced into a runoff.
There’s a similar situation in the 11th Congressional District race, where an extreme candidate like Bob Barr could finish ahead of a moderate candidate like Ed Lindsey in the primary and get the nomination without being pushed into a runoff.
That’s why you should keep your eye on Judge Steve C. Jones. He could end up playing the most important role of all in the 2014 elections.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com.)