Judge Alters Georgia’s Election Dates

This Week’s Courier Herald column:

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 3rd 2014, Primary runoffs nine weeks later on August 5th, the general election remains unchanged at November 4th, and the final runoff moves to January 6th 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 17th – 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 3 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 underway even though votes for the primary will not be counted until next June.

Phase II will be the most different, where 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 full 9 week stare down 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.

5 comments

  1. DeKalb Wonkette says:

    The new schedule is incredibly disruptive of the state legislative process isn’t it? With state lawmakers qualifying during the session for higher office, they’d end up having to step down just at the height of the session, no?

    • No. You are only required to “resign to run” if the new office you are qualifying for starts its term on a different schedule than the one you currently hold. Since all legislators term expire every two years, they don’t have to resign their current office because their current term will end when the new one (if they win) would begin.

      Similarly, Congressmen who run for the Senate (or Governor) don’t resign unless it is a special election because their terms end when the new term begins. Same for legislators who try to run for Congress or statewide office.

      Resign to run really only applies in special elections or when someone who isn’t on a 2 year schedule runs for some other office on a different schedule – so if you decide to run for a city or county office like Mayor of Atlanta that gets elected in an odd year or vice versa. So, if someone in the legislature or Congress qualifies for Mayor of Atlanta or city council, they would have to resign because that election occurs in 2013 and their new term would start before their old one finished. Similarly, if the Mayor of Atlanta tried to run for Governor or Senate, he or she would have to resign because their new term wouldn’t end until 2017 and the new office would be elected in either 2014 or 2016.

      The only people who *might* not have to resign to run could be sitting members of Congress trying to run for something like Mayor of Atlanta or a Senator who decides to run for Governor either 2 or 4 years into his Senate term. I say might because like term limits, a court might say that state laws don’t apply to members of Congress. When Missouri tried to term limit Congressmen, federal courts ruled that only Congress could pass a law defining who could and couldn’t be a Congressman (which is why in Georgia there is no residency requirement for Congress unlike other offices). And here in Georgia, the rule prohibiting fundraising during the session was ruled in court not to apply to Congressional campaign accounts.

  2. Dave Bearse says:

    I presume the General Assembly will align state and local races with federal elections. That would push a November general election runoff for office in a Jan 1 created city to follow commencement of municipal operations.

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