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Crawford: Election law tampering backfires again

POSTED: November 27, 2008 5:00 a.m.

There is a longstanding tradition in Georgia that the political party controlling state government will try to give itself an advantage over the opposition by fiddling with the election laws.

Every time a party messes with the election code, however, the law of unintended consequences always seems to backfire on them. The latest victim was the Republican Party and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who now has to worry about losing a Dec. 2 runoff election to Democratic challenger Jim Martin.

This whole mess started decades ago when the Democrats were in power and enacted a law that required a candidate to get at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election. If the first-place finisher had less than 50 percent, a runoff election was required.

The 50 percent rule was intended to prevent black candidates from winning primary elections with a plurality of the votes. The thinking was that if you could force a black candidate into a runoff, white voters would team up to defeat him.

That worked fine for the Democrats until 1992, when U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler was running for re-election against Republican Paul Coverdell. Fowler finished first in the general election but the presence of a Libertarian candidate in the race held him just below 50 percent of the vote. That required a runoff election in which Coverdell narrowly defeated Fowler to win the Senate seat.

Democrats decided they would fix that problem by changing the law so that a runoff was not required if the first-place finisher received at least 45 percent of the votes. That change allowed Republican Linda Schrenko to win re-election as state school superintendent in 1998 even though she received just 49 percent of the vote. This turned out to be a disaster for Georgia's public schools, not because Schrenko was a Republican but because she was a crook.

Schrenko was subsequently indicted and is now serving a prison sentence for stealing federal education funds and converting them to her own personal use. We might have been spared that embarrassment if the Democrats hadn't tinkered with the election laws.

When Republicans gained control of the governor's office and the legislature several years ago, one of their first initiatives was -- you guessed it -- to try to rig the election laws in their favor, just as Democrats had done for years.

They promptly moved the election requirement back to 50 percent of the votes. They also adopted a law requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification on election day and they greatly expanded early voting by allowing citizens to cast a no-excuses absentee ballot up to 45 days prior to election day. The belief was that these changes would benefit Republican candidates in future election cycles.

Once again, the law of unintended consequences reared its head in this year's general election.

African-Americans who wanted to vote for Barack Obama lined up in record numbers during the early voting period in Georgia; they accounted for nearly 700,000 of the 2 million ballots cast prior to election day.

The 50 percent requirement also trapped Chambliss, one of the most prominent Republican officials in the state.

Chambliss finished 109,000 votes ahead of Martin and garnered 49.8 percent of the vote. In almost every other state, that would have sent him back to Washington for another six-year term. In Georgia, it forced him into a high-risk runoff election on Dec. 2.

If you go by past voting patterns, Chambliss would ordinarily be the favorite to win that election because there is usually a heavier dropoff in voting by blacks than by whites in runoffs. But this has been one of those election years where the conventional wisdom, in many ways, has been overturned. If Martin goes against the conventional wisdom and wins the runoff, Republicans will have lost one of their most prestigious political posts in Georgia.

It's simply another illustration of why legislators should not tamper with election laws to try to obtain a temporary political advantage.

Evidently, it's a lesson that has yet to hit home here in the Peach State. Republican legislators are already talking about changing the election laws yet again to cut down on the early voting period, if not eliminate it entirely, and to drop that 50 percent requirement back to 45 percent.

When will they ever learn?

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.



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