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Ellis treads tough road in District 3 race

Independent candidate seeking to get on ballot against incumbent Gibbs

POSTED: April 23, 2014 11:28 p.m.
/For The Times

Steven Ellis

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Lifelong Hall County resident Steven Ellis has an uphill battle trying to unseat Scott Gibbs in the District 3 Board of Commissioners race this year.

In fact, that might be overstating the independent candidate’s chances. Just trying to get his name on the ballot has become something of a campaign in its own right.

“There is so much strictness around the petition itself,” Ellis said.

Ellis, 28, has until July 8 to get 935 signatures of registered voters; otherwise, he will not qualify for the fall ballot.

After getting 70 or so signatures in the first week after announcing his candidacy, Ellis ran into a roadblock. He had difficulty getting his hands on a voter registration list and only recently began his efforts anew.

But the challenges don’t end there, something University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock understands.

“Georgia has a reputation as being one of the most difficult states to qualify another party for,” he said.

Though the Libertarian Party of Georgia has gained enough prominence to get candidates on the ballot, other parties, such as the Green Party, haven’t had the same success. Moreover, independent candidates like Ellis face significant barriers to entry, obstacles that may only be remedied through name recognition or heavy financing.

Ellis said he is hoping to tackle these challenges in the coming weeks as he knocks on doors, attends community events and sends out friends and family to ask voters to sign his petition.

He aims to get at least 3,000 signatures, partly to boost his credibility and partly to ensure he meets the threshold to qualify. Signatures must be verified with the Hall County elections office, and if a signature cannot be certified it is scratched from the petition.

In his first political campaign, Ellis is beginning to realize the difficulty of creating a stir, something he likely needs to do to improve his chances of winning.

Gibbs said he knows a thing or two about the challenges of entering the world of politics. For years before he considered running, Gibbs attended county commission meetings, got involved with the local GOP and began participating in community organizations and events. But he also benefited from having grown up in Hall County.

“I probably had it a little easier than most because I knew so many people,” he said.

This seems even more true when it comes to running an independent campaign. And lacking the fortunes, experience and backing of a party-affiliated incumbent, independents sometimes need a little luck.

“Incumbents are hard to displace,” Bullock said, adding it sometimes takes a sex or corruption scandal to oust them. “Those are always helpful.”

There is an upside to being the fresh face in the crowd, however. Voter dissatisfaction with both Democrats and Republicans is evident. Nationally, only about 1 in 10 Americans on average approves of the job the U.S. Congress is doing. While voters may be less disgruntled in Hall County, where Republicans have dominated in recent elections, many election years are energized when new blood enters the scene.

But Ellis also has to be careful not to stray too far from party orthodoxy. So while Ellis, who said he voted hard-line Republican until recently, is working to establish his own voice, the appeal that comes with trending toward the political center may have its own consequences.

As the incumbent, Gibbs knows how hard it is to achieve this fine balance.

“You can’t make 100 percent of the people happy all the time,” he said, adding the perception of government work from the outside doesn’t quite match the reality on the inside. “It’s eye-opening.”

But Ellis appears to relish the role of underdog, and he hopes to capitalize on whatever desire for change voters might have.

“I do know a thing or two about listening to people and their problems,” he said.

“I really just wanted to see why an independent candidate could not win an election, especially against an incumbent, here in Hall County.”


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