May 20 election day makes candidates rush to get votes

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 18, 2014 

A Georgia law just passed last week moves state and local elections from July 15 to May 20, and that means candidates this year will have to make some fast moves to catch and keep voters' attention.

Meanwhile, voters still will face the usual complications of picking the right ballot to match the state party primary and local nonpartisan races they want to vote on -- noting Columbus' nonpartisan contests will be on each party's ballot, but picking only a nonpartisan ballot means voting in neither party's primary.

Voters will have to choose quickly, if they vote early, as the Georgia General Assembly's moving state contests to coincide with federal elections means that everything in the schedule moves up.

Everything, that is, except the runoff, should one ensue. The runoff will be July 22, from May 20 a stretch of nine weeks -- a challenge for candidates trying to keep voters engaged during the summer.

Under the old schedule, the July 15 election would have left just three weeks before an Aug. 5 runoff.

The runoff campaign will stretch; the initial campaign for federal, state and local offices will compress.

Now that legislators have consolidated May 20 as the election day for federal and state party primaries and local nonpartisan races, everything comes earlier: Candidates qualify for office March 3-7; election workers start mailing out absentee ballots April 7; the voter registration deadline's April 21; in-person early voting begins April 28; advance voting's the week of May 12-16.

Like the election-to-runoff schedule, that puts about nine weeks between qualifying and election day, but fewer voters now wait for Election Day to cast ballots.

The more faithful voters are older residents who use paper absentee ballots. They may vote as soon as those come in the mail -- roughly four weeks after qualifying.

Columbus attorney Fife Whiteside, who once held the school board District 5 seat now occupied by chairman Robert Varner, said early voting already has altered how campaigns operate.

"The early voting, I thought, was a big change in how you do local politics," he said. "A local political consultant used to say the only 10 days that mattered in a campaign were the last 10, starting two weekends before Election Day. Until then, people wouldn't pay attention."

So campaigns used to save their money for that last-week media blitz.

"You would be reaching people as they'd be talking about it at the dinner table or around the barbecue grill, but now those conversations are spread out," Whiteside said. "They're truncated over weeks, so that makes it much harder."

This year's crunch between qualifying and early voting means candidates will have to hustle, and for those targeting broad constituencies -- countywide or regional offices -- the time to hustle is now.

"If you're running countywide, you'd better be working now, or you're not going to have enough time between qualifying in March and the May 20 election," said citywide school board representative Cathy Williams, who narrowly lost her first bid for her board seat before winning and holding it. She has chosen not to seek re-election this year.

"I think that what this does is it requires people to begin campaigning prior to qualification, which can be very confusing to the public, because you haven't qualified, but you're running," she said. "You're raising money … you've got your bumper stickers out, but you haven't even qualified."

Countywide, Columbus has around 107,000 active voters, those most likely to cast ballots, said elections director Nancy Boren.

A candidate seeking a citywide office, such as the school board post Williams is vacating, has to use tactics that quickly reach a wide audience, because he or she won't have time to walk neighborhoods knocking on doors and handing out brochures.

It's even more of a challenge for a regional primary campaign, such as a legislative district covering more than one county.

"If I were in that area of politics, I imagine what I would be doing right now would be raising funds," Williams said. "I would be raising money and pledges from people so in the event that somebody qualifies against me, they would immediately come to the table, because it's not going to be a door-knocking campaign. It's going to be direct mail, or another more expensive way of campaigning."

Said Whiteside: "You'd have to put a lot of emphasis on direct mail and media, and of course that increases the price tag, too. The media is a big expense, and as you know, television is the main thing."

Lately candidates have put more emphasis on the use of online social media such as Facebook, to reach a broader network of voters.

Whiteside said the effect of that has yet to be gauged.

"I think around here that's still an unknown, whether that's going to make a major impact or not."

Those seeking district Columbus Council or school board seats will not face the same pressure.

During redistricting based on the 2010 census, the target population for each district was 22,748, just 21 percent of the 107,000 active voters citywide.

So a district candidate may yet have time to hit the streets and meet the voters.

"You can probably still knock on all your registered voters' doors if you're in a district, but you can't citywide," Williams said.

This year Columbus' district elections include odd-numbered council seats and even-numbered school board seats, plus Williams' at-large seat designated Post 9.

Hardly anyone notes district numbers, so here's the list of incumbents.

• Columbus Council: Besides Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who so far faces a challenge from Colin Martin, the councilors up for re-election are Jerry "Pops" Barnes, District 1; Bruce Huff, District 3; Mike Baker, District 5; Evelyn "Mimi" Woodson, District 7; and Judy Thomas, in citywide Post 9.

• Muscogee County School Board: Besides Williams' seat, which Kia Chambers and Nate Sanderson plan to seek, the board representatives up for re-election are John Wells, District 2; Naomi Buckner, District 4; Mark Cantrell, District 6; and Beth Harris, District 8.

Qualifying for those and other offices begins at 9 a.m. March 3 and ends at noon March 7.

This is the third time in 10 years local elections have been moved. Longtime voters may recall those races were held on July 20 back in 2004, but ran on the November General Election ballot in 2006, 2008 and 2010. Then the General Assembly shifted them to coincide with state party primaries, which in 2012 were held July 31.

This time legislators are changing the dates because Georgia lost a lawsuit alleging its previous federal election schedule violated the Uniform Overseas Voting Act, which says those voting absentee from foreign lands must have 45 days to cast their ballots.

Georgia previously had only 21 days between the election and any runoff that followed. The state tried to remedy this by enclosing a blank runoff ballot along with the initial primary ballot mailed to voters overseas -- with the idea those voters would save the blank ballot until they heard who was in the runoff, then fill it out and mail it in, without waiting for an official runoff ballot to be mailed to them.

The judge ruling against Georgia decided this was inadequate. Having lost the suit, state leaders asked the judge to set May 20 as the federal primary date and planned to pass legislation moving state elections to match.

Designated House Bill 310, that measure last week passed the Georgia House and Senate and went to the governor for his signature.

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