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Opinion: Election rules should be fair, not made to give any one candidate an advantage
Doug Collins 2020
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins speaks as Georgia House Rep. Terry England , left, and House Speaker, David Ralston, right listen at the Georgia House on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 in Atlanta. - photo by John Spink | Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Even though it is perceived as likely to help Gainesville’s Doug Collins in his quest for a seat in the U.S. Senate, the move underway to create a partisan primary this spring for that election rather than having the candidates face each other in a free-for-all election in November needs to die. By the end of last week, it seemed some political leaders were coming to the same conclusion.

While discussion of the issue may sound like a lot of “inside baseball” to many, the fact is the proposal is one that significantly changes the state’s approach to the handling of special elections for federal office and has a lot more to do with partisanship and political power than electoral efficiency.

Existing state law is very clear. When a U.S. Senate seat is vacated for whatever reason during a term, the governor has the authority to appoint a replacement, and candidates seeking to complete the term are to be listed on the next statewide general election ballot. The result is what some call a “jungle election,” with candidates from all parties on a single ballot and the top two, regardless of party, advancing to a runoff if a majority of the votes is not received by any candidate.

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There is no provision in the law for a party primary to narrow the field to one candidate from each party. In fact, state law does not call for primaries for any sort of special election, federal or state.

Some members of the House want to change that law and force those who seek to fulfill the Senate term vacated by Johnny Isakson to first run in a partisan primary this spring, with party nominees then voted on in the general election, as is typically the case in a normal election cycle.

A bill to set qualifying dates for the Senate election was amended to create legislation requiring a primary, and a subcommittee of the state House gave its approval last week. On Thursday, the rules committee decided it needs more work. 

And on Friday, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he wants to study the issue and make no changes now.

If the House does approve the change in state election law, there is no reason to believe it would win favor in the state Senate, where leadership isn’t likely to support the change, but in the unlikely event that does happen, Gov. Brian Kemp has promised to veto the bill.

So why all the sudden interest in changing election law that’s been on the books for years? Partisanship and power politics.

Many Republicans in the state’s legislative body are unhappy that Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to fill the unexpired term of Isakson. They see the idea of forcing a rushed primary campaign when none was expected as the best way of assuring her defeat while also delivering a pointed message to the governor who dared to be so independent as to appoint someone who wasn’t their choice.

Speaker of the House David Ralston has used his political clout to promote the idea, signaling that whatever honeymoon period Kemp might have enjoyed his first year in office has officially ended.

Some Democrats in the House have signed on in support of the forced primary, presumably thinking that narrowing the field to one Democrat and one Republican fighting it out in the general election leaves them in a better position than having multiple candidates of both parties on a November ballot.

Changing the law at this point to force a party nomination vote in May would be nothing more than a bit of political maneuvering designed specifically to help certain candidates while hurting others. That’s not what a fair election is supposed to be about.

When Loeffler applied for and accepted the appointment to the Senate seat, she did so knowing that she would be expected to stand for election in November to complete the term. When the three Democrat challengers who already have announced plans to run decided to enter the contest, they did so planning on an election in November. When Collins made his announcement last week, he did so knowing what the law requires.

If a party primary is essential to the process of holding a special election for the U.S. Senate, then the same should be true of other special elections to fill unexpired terms as well.  

If lawmakers truly believe there needs to be a primary process attached to special elections, then they need to throw their support behind legislation to make such changes for future election years, not this election cycle. 

By the end of last week, Ralston seemed to be doing just that. On Thursday, he clarified that the bill would likely not affect this year’s race. 

“This special election was not to be singled out,” Ralston said. “I think jungle primaries are bad policy. We’re just trying to change the policy moving forward.”

Raffensperger agreed the state should hold party primaries to select nominees before special elections, instead of letting all candidates run against each other regardless of party affiliation. 

Logically speaking, however, it doesn’t make much sense to do so. Special elections occur only when an office is unexpectedly vacated, and that can happen at any time, not necessarily just during an election year. Forcing the holding of primaries as a nominating process for special elections would unnecessarily add time, expense and confusion to any such election cycle.

None of which is to be confused with an endorsement of any candidate for the job. We don’t even know yet who all the contenders may be, and a lot of campaigning has to be done before the electorate has its say. But state lawmakers shouldn’t play games with election rules with the obvious intent of helping certain candidates or certain political parties to claim victory.

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