Charlie Harper: Judge alters election dates

July 16, 2013 

Friday morning Georgians were told that the way we elect our party nominees and conduct general election runoffs will change. Federal Judge Steve C. Jones set dates for primaries for candidates seeking federal offices, as well as moved the general election runoff to January, should one be required.

The purpose for the ruling is to ensure Georgia has time to distribute and receive military overseas absentee ballots, and means that Georgia's primary will move from late July to very early June. Significant dates for Georgia voters include party primaries on June 3, 2014, primary runoffs nine weeks later on August 5, the general election unchanged at November 4 and the final runoff moves to January 6, 2015.

These dates imposed by the court do not technically affect dates for Georgia's elections for state and local offices, and are still set by statute in Georgia law. The cost of running separate elections for federal and state offices would almost certainly prod the legislature to align elections for state and local offices with the dates selected by the judge. This, of course, presumes the state accepts the ruling and does not choose to appeal.

Those legislators will be among those affected, as qualifying for office will now occur the week of March 17 - a time when the General Assembly is usually just beginning its home stretch. Statewide office holders aren't permitted to collect campaign donations when the legislature is in session, leaving the possibility that up to one month of the "official" campaign could occur where incumbents would not be allowed to fundraise.

Legislators should fight the temptation to relax the fundraising rules on themselves when looking at legislative fixes. There was a late attempt last year to forbid challengers for state offices to raise money while the legislature is in session as a way to "level the playing field." Legislators should not make another unforced error by attempting this again this year.

The ruling does more than just change election dates and move qualifying and the first votes a few weeks closer. For those currently running -- and for those trying to figure out who has the staying power for a long race and likely runoff -- the overall strategy must now incorporate a long runoff into the campaign plan.

With five announced candidates currently in the race for US Senate on the GOP side and possibly two more significant players to enter, it is virtually guaranteed that there will be a runoff for that race. The primaries to fill the seats held by Congressmen Broun, Gingrey and Kingston likewise are attracting crowded fields and will also likely feature a runoff.

Truthfully, campaign consultants and strategists have always treated the runoff as a separate campaign - one that needed new materials printed within hours of the vote totals, new commercials that must be taped within a week, and new direct mail ready in less than 10 days to complete the final three-week sprint. In the past, this short cycle provided a decisive advantage to the candidate that had money on hand and the ability to quickly assimilate support and supporters of other candidates not making the runoff.

With the runoff now being a full nine weeks, it's akin to moving from a sudden death format to playing another full 18 hole round.

In short, there will likely be three distinct, full campaign cycles for the 2014 election. Phase 1 is well under way even though votes for the primary will not be counted until next June.

Phase II will be the most different, when the top two vote getters in each contest not settled in June will have a full scale battle. The longer timeframe will allow a distant challenger a bit more time to build a case against another who may start with a fundraising advantage. It will also allow for a small mistake or two to blow over. Regardless, it will be a fullnine-week staredown between the top two candidates in many races.

The general election phase will be a standard August-November battle between Republicans and Democrats. But the later runoff in these contests, if needed, would extend the campaign activities though Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's before settling all contests.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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