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Editorial: Contested races in primary, fall offer voters a real choice
03162018 VOTING

Too often in recent years, ballots offered for local elections looked like a list of incumbent office holders. With a scarcity of contested races in most races, all candidates had to do was show up and vote for themselves and the game was over. Such absence of voter choice is not good for democracy, no matter which side you may favor.

Lo and behold, this year we have ourselves an actual election. When last week’s qualifying period was done, a slew of candidates from both parties had qualified for the May 22 primary in nearly all local, state and federal races. And even where there are no primary challenges, most races will include candidates from two or even three parties on the November ballot.

In Hall County, two incumbent commissioners face primary opponents: District 1 Commissioner Kathy Cooper is challenged by fellow Republican George Thorndyke, with Democrat Michael Parker awaiting the winner in the fall. In District 3, incumbent Scott Gibbs faces Shelly Echols in the primary.

Two Republicans, Mark Pettitt and Gina London Pilcher, will meet in the Post 2 Board of Education spot, with Democrat William Wallace on the general ballot. Incumbent Republican Bill Thompson and Democrat Stephanie Lopez-Burgos will compete in the fall for the school board at-large seat.

In the state legislature, two Democrats (yes, two), Alana Watkins and Patrick Anderson, will meet for the chance to face House District 30 Rep. Emory Dunahoo in the fall. District 29 Rep. Matt Dubnik has a Democratic challenger, Maria Palacios, and independent Nancy Stead awaiting in November.

And even the 9th District U.S. House seat will include two races, Democrats Josh McCall and Dave Cooper running in May to decide who takes on Rep. Doug Collins for the seat in Congress.

The same pattern is true statewide, with wide-open races aplenty: Nine candidates for governor (seven GOP, two Democrats); five running for lieutenant governor (three GOP, two Democrats); seven for secretary of state (4 and 3); and on down the line. (see a full list of candidates in local races here; for state races, click here).

That is much more like it. Having so many competitive races should boost interest and turnout, which isn’t always strong in midterm nonpresidential years. These positions on the ballot may have more immediate local impact than who governs in Washington, and deserve our full interest.

At this point, it’s less about who wins than who takes part. A full ballot is the first step toward voters having a greater voice in government. If Georgia is to remain a state of diverse views and leadership policies, a full spectrum of ideas should be represented.

Unfortunately, the call to political office has been silenced by many factors. Many are discouraged from seeking office by the divisive nature of current politics, the large pile of cash needed to make such a run and the unwillingness to surrender one’s private and professional lives.

In some cases, gerrymandering districts into “safe” Republican and Democratic strongholds has strengthened incumbents’ grip and discouraged serious challengers from stepping up. If districts were drawn more in line with what works for voters than for candidates, there would be more contested races.

That said, gerrymandering and other obstacles can be overcome by having more people get involved. The squeaky wheels will always get the grease, and when those wheels can unite, organize and push forth agendas and candidates that appeal to more voters, they can turn into a mighty convoy.

Most important, voters need choices. Even if you purely favor one party or ideology, having contested primary races lets you choose between candidates of different backgrounds, skills and ideals. In both primaries and general elections, everyone should be able to measure candidates side by side and not be left with singular choices. Those who win elected office should reach out to all voters to earn support, not just show up and vote for themselves.

Contested races also are the best way to hold elected officials accountable. When they breeze into office without a foe, the message they hear is “I’m untouchable” and they often tune out opposing voices within their constituency. Candidates should appeal for every vote, then maintain that support by communicating with those they serve and listen to their concerns. That’s less likely to happen when theirs is the only name on a ballot.

We’re encouraged to see such active participation from people in both parties in this year’s primary. We look forward to spirited debates on the issues and strong engagement from voters to choose wisely. 

To get the government we want and deserve requires us to pay attention, choose the top people and weed out those who don’t measure up. Having a full ballot of options to work with is a good start.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.