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Democracy, interrupted: Election delay complicates local ballot questions

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

Moving the date of the Georgia Democratic Presidential Primary from March 24 to May 19 may prolong the endgame battle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but it isn’t likely to change the final result. That may not be the case with a couple of Metro Atlanta elections which were also scheduled for next week.

DeKalb County has a hot sheriff’s race. Melody Maddox, who became the county’s first woman sheriff last year after a scandal caused the early retirement of former Sheriff Jeffrey Mann, faces eight challengers in her effort to win a full term.

Atlanta voters will decide the fate of the city’s one-cent municipal optional sales tax (MOST) which began in 2004 as part of a federal consent decree in which the city agreed to fix its aging water and sewer system.

Hall County might have been moving its election day also, but the county Board of Elections turned down a request to vote on a special purpose local option sales tax for education — an E-SPLOST —  on the presidential primary date.

School officials objected to this unusual rebuff, but they may have dodged a bullet in this case. These local elections will now be held on the same day as the general election primaries for state and local offices, and that’s going to be a completely different ballgame, with a larger and less predictable electorate. You’ll have Republican and Democratic voters, people who know a lot about local issues and others, not much.

The DeKalb sheriff’s race has several serious candidates with a lot of law enforcement experience. But do they all have campaign piggy banks big enough to last for another eight weeks? In small-turnout elections, you can rely a lot on endorsements and word of mouth. That doesn’t work as well in larger elections with more races on the ballot. In these, you have to win a core group, as well as a significant number of voters who might decide on the basis of a single mailer or radio ad.

That could make the change in dates especially problematic for the Atlanta MOST vote. City officials have warned that ending the sales tax would put the city in violation of the federal court agreement and lead to a 25 percent increase in water bills for Atlanta residents. They would bear the entire burden for the $4 billion repair job instead of sharing it with others who spend money in the city.

Supporters of the MOST extension may have the math on their side, but they will have to explain it now to a lot more voters, who at first wink might be enthusiastic about a one-cent sales tax cut.

All of this assumes that by May, the coronavirus pandemic will be sufficiently under control to conduct a primary election. As Maggie Lee reports, Raffensperger has promised “a very robust absentee ballot application program,” but polls still have to open on an election day. Due to the seriousness of the current situation and the potential danger to poll workers, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger decision wasn’t controversial. If we’re in lockdown mode in a couple of months, he could have a much more difficult call to make.

Raffensperger announced the postponement only days after canceling the race to fill the seat retiring state Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell. That gives Kemp the opportunity to appoint his successor, because Blackwell is retiring a month before his term expires in December.

The cancellation, announced just a day before the qualifying period was to begin, resulted in law suits brought by two likely opponents in the race, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and former state Rep. Beth Beskin. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Emily Richardson ruled Monday that Kemp had the right to make the appointment.

The decisions to postpone the presidential primary and call off the judicial election have nothing to do with each other, but together they amount to an unusual amount of tinkering with elections. Throw the new voting machines in the mix and Raffensperger has a lot on his plate in this increasingly complicated year ind the republic’s history.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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