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Secretary of State is requesting this law change related to open U.S. Senate seat
01152020 ELECTIONS
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger holds a press conference Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, after the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Eggs & Issues Breakfast in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia's top elections official is seeking a last-minute change to state law to ensure he's authorized to set the deadline for candidates to sign up to challenge newly appointed Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the November election.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants to hold candidate qualifying for Loeffler's Senate seat during the first week of March, spokesman Walter Jones said Wednesday. That's the same window that candidates in other 2020 Georgia races must officially declare to get on the ballot.

But before Raffensperger sets that deadline, he's asking the legislature to amend a state law dealing with special elections to specify that his office has discretion to decide the qualifying dates. He said he's trying to avoid potential lawsuits at a time when Georgia courts are already busy with litigation challenging the fairness and security of the state's elections.

"This is about providing Georgia voters certainty and order by putting into law what has been the practice for over 30 years," Raffensperger, a Republican, said in a statement. "The last thing voters need now is another frivolous politically motivated lawsuit based on muddled legal reasoning."

How soon candidates are required to qualify for the special election could help decide how much opposition Loeffler, who was sworn in Jan. 6, will face during her campaign to fill the two years remaining in the unfinished term of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. The Nov. 3 election won't be preceded by party primaries, meaning Loeffler could face multiple Republicans and Democrats on the fall ballot.

Isakson's retirement amid faltering health at the end of 2020 further raised the stakes for Georgia in the 2020 elections by placing both of its U.S. Senate seats on the November ballot. Republican Sen. David Perdue is in the final year of his six-year term and must seek reelection.

Georgia law says candidates in special elections to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House can't qualify to run before the election is officially called and must sign up no later than 60 days before the election. That window doesn't close until early September.

A bill introduced Tuesday in the Georgia House by Judiciary Chairman Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, would add language that candidates will sign up "during a period designated by the Secretary of State" of at least 2 1/2 days during the wider window prescribed by the current law.

The legal change would appear to conform with how Georgia handled special elections in the past. After U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell died in office in July 2000, candidates running for his seat were given three days to qualify during the first week of August.

"We always set dates for qualifying for special elections," said Cathy Cox, a Democrat whose eight years as secretary of state included the 2000 special election to replace Coverdell.

Cox, who is now dean of Mercer University's law school, said the proposed legal changes Raffensperger wants appear to be "an effort to just button down the details and make it consistent."

Raffensperger's office also cited a 1986 legal opinion by then-Attorney General Mike Bowers, advising Democratic Secretary of State Max Cleland that local election superintendents should be able to "choose a shorter time span" for candidates to qualify in special elections for local office than the wider window prescribed by the same law Raffensperger wants to change.

Maggie Chambers, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Wednesday that party officials were still reviewing the proposed change and did not have an immediate comment. A former attorney for state Democrats said he saw nothing that would give one political party an advantage over the other.

"There isn't a blatantly partisan reason" for the proposed change, said Michael Jablonski, who served 15 years as attorney for the Georgia Democratic Party before retiring last year.

Stewart Bragg, executive director of the state Republican Party, did not have an immediate comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

An early qualifying deadline would help Loeffler and any opponents, Republicans or Democrats, who declare early by potentially narrowing the field and preventing any surprise entrances late in the race, Jablonski said.

Forcing candidates for all 2020 races to qualify by early March would also prohibit any Democrats who lose the May 19 primary for the party's nomination to challenge Perdue from then jumping into the race against Loeffler.

So far, two Democrats have announced plans to challenge Loeffler. Matt Lieberman is an Atlanta educator and the son of former vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Ed Tarver of Augusta served as U.S. attorney for Georgia's Southern District during President Barack Obama's two terms.

Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, one of President Donald Trump's most vocal advocates in the House, has said he's considering a challenge to Loeffler.

Bynum reported from Savannah