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Columns Tom Baxter Atlanta Civic Circle Democracy

If only for a few weeks, a congressional seat has its allure

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

In a year filled with election mishaps, snafus and controversies, is there anything to compare with the Rube Goldberg process by which voters are being asked to choose John Lewis’ successor in the Georgia 5th District?

Last Friday, seven candidates qualified to run in the Sept. 29 special election to fill out the remainder of Lewis’ term. But this is not the race to see who will represent the district in the next two-year term beginning in January. That will be decided in the Nov. 3 election between Republican Angela King-Stanton, who ran unopposed in the June 9 GOP primary, and state Sen. Nikema Williams, who was selected by the state Democratic Party executive committee to replace Lewis on the November ballot.

If there’s a runoff in the special election — and with seven candidates collected on short notice, you know there’s going to be a runoff — it will be held Dec. 1. That means that less than a month after Atlanta voters have chosen who will represent them over the next two years, they will be expected to vote again to decide who will represent them for the next 30 days.

Now you might think that, since the term will be for less than a month, and most of that taken up by the holiday break, that nobody would be much interested in running for it. But to think that is to underestimate the moth-to-flame allure of an open congressional seat, even if there’s barely time to warm it up.

In fact, this would have been an impressive field in any congressional race. It includes Emory professor and Morehouse College president emeritus Robert Franklin, veteran legislator “Able” Mable Thomas, former state Rep. Keisha Waites, and former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall. There’s a Libertarian, Chase Oliver, an independent, Steven Muhammed, and Barrington Martin, who lost to Lewis in the June primary and has taken the Twitter hashtag #NewTrouble.

All these candidates paid a $5,220 qualifying fee to run for Congress. How much more they can spend, in an election campaign that will be four times as long as the term of the office, is up to them.

Williams opted not to run in the special election. I don’t know if that saved her having to pay another filing fee, but it sure saved a lot of distraction. Her only opponent now, in a district which the Cook Report rates as the 14th most Democratic in the country, is a Republican who was pardoned after serving two years on conspiracy charges by President Trump. To the extent that any appointed candidate can walk into a sure thing, Williams has, and she chose not to complicate things with a special election which wasn’t a sure thing.

If there weren’t a pandemic going on, all these election days might not seem such a burden. From the primary last June to the (likely) runoff in the U.S. Senate jungle primary next Jan. 5, voters in the 5th District will have had the civic duty to vote six times in less than six months.

That’s a workout for poll workers, and a continuing test of our still shaky new voting machines. It will give an extra push to the already accelerating trend toward mail-in voting. And it’s going to leave a lot of voters thoroughly confused.

As troublesome as this all is, however, we should take some comfort in knowing the state Constitution provides a guide, however complicated, for all eventualities. To be fair to the parties, there had to be a procedure to follow in the event a candidate died after winning a party’s primary, as Lewis did. Although there is some uncertainty as to exactly how it should be interpreted, there was such a procedure. It gave the Democratic Party leadership the right to put another name on the ballot.

To insure that voters get representation, there also had to be a procedure to follow in the event of any death in office. That led to the special session. The system works, even if the different parts of it sometimes collide with each other.

Featured Image by Kelly Jordan

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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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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Melinda Banks August 4, 2020 11:56 am

    What is the cost to the taxpayers for this effective 30 day term? From polls being open to new stationery being printed for the winner – what is the value received in return? While I absolutely appreciate the process, at some point, common sense should take the lead.Report

    Reply

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