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Our Views: Let the races begin
Ready or not, the 2014 campaigns are underway, so time for voters to tune in
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. Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson. 

2014 election calendar

• Federal, state primary: May 20 (voter registration deadline April 21)
• Primary runoff: July 22
• General election: Nov. 4 (registration deadline Oct. 6)
• State runoff: Dec. 2
• Federal runoff: Jan. 6

It’s time to put away the snow shovels and the sleds for now, and get ready for some March Madness. Not basketball, in this case, but a sport with even harsher rivalries and more contact: Election season.

“Already?” some of you may ask. Yes, as the days get longer and the weather warmer, that means it’s nearly time to trudge to the polls and elect new leaders. Our spectator sporting options will transition from skiing and skating to mudslinging, the traditional, no-holds-barred competition that runs from spring to fall.

Unlike in previous years, we can’t afford to tune out the campaign noise while waiting for temperatures to rise and snowstorms to disappear from radar. This year’s election calendar starts earlier than ever: Qualifying for federal, state and local offices is set for March 3-7, followed by the party primaries May 20. The date was moved as a result of a federal court ruling that requires more time between an election and possible runoff, now set for July 22. The deadline for voters to register for the primary is April 21.

This year’s ballot for midterm elections will be a chunky one. In addition to filling seats in Congress, all statewide elected officials are up this year, including governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, school superintendent and labor, agriculture and insurance commissioners.

Closer to home are contested races for county commissioner and school board posts along with all members of the General Assembly, who are in a hurry to finish their current session so they can rush home and begin campaigning.

If local residents weren’t aware election season was underway, they got a taste of it Saturday night when candidates for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat took part in a debate at Brenau University, one in a series of seven such gatherings around the state. A handful of contenders are seeking the seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, with the GOP survivor facing what likely will be a well-funded Democratic foe in the Nov. 4 election.

So far, the GOP Senate candidates have found little to disagree over, with three House members, a former Georgia secretary of state and prominent businessman as top contenders. Yet as the primary date nears, look for the race to get testier and the ads nastier.

Look for Northeast Georgia, and the Hall County area in particular, to get a lot of attention in the Senate race. While races for governor and lieutenant governor boast of hometown incumbents likely to dominate here, such is not the case for the group seeking Chambliss’ office. Our region’s strong Republican base is a tempting target and we could see quite a few campaign visits until a nominee is chosen.

That means it’s time for us to start paying attention, albeit reluctantly. The early fundraising part of a campaign is easy to ignore, but once the candidates begin seeking votes in earnest, it’s up to us to start vetting them to see who is worthy of being selected. If you choose to snooze through it, you soon may find yourself staring at a ballot without a clue who to vote for.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office manages state elections, discussed the new calendar last week in a visit to the Gainesville Rotary Club’s meeting at First Baptist Church. He pointed out one key difference, the nine-week span between a primary and runoff, replacing what used to be three weeks. With a runoff likely in a multi-candidate field, as in the Senate race, look for a full spring and summer of gloves-off combat.

“You will have nine weeks of hate mail ... you’ll have that to look forward to,” Kemp told the crowd.

Even worse, a runoff after the November election, less likely but possible based on third-party strength, could drag a Senate runoff through the holiday period into January 2015.

“Hopefully, we don’t have that scenario,” he said.

Kemp also last week proposed a date for Georgia’s 2016 presidential primary, when voters will replace President Barack Obama at the end of his second term. An open Oval Office tends to beckon numerous candidates and hard-fought contests, and that election already is shaping up to be a doozy.

Kemp wants to move the state’s presidential primary that year to March 1 and join several other Southern states in a Super Tuesday “SEC primary” with a strong regional appeal.

That’s a great idea. The scattered nature of the primary calendar often leaves some states ignored or holding votes long after races are decided. As a result, many try to crowd toward the front of the process, which creates a chaotic mishmash of states trying to squeeze in primaries all at once.

A more regional approach would allow candidates to concentrate their campaign visits and advertising dollars in a specific area that would benefit both them and their voters. Of course, that still means a rush to the front of the calendar, but the rising influence of the South in national elections would offer a natural advantage. Come 2016, what likely will be a wide-open GOP field would make a Southern regional primary a huge boost to a potential nominee.

There is quite a bit of incentive for states to remain viable in a presidential race. Candidate visits not only give voters a more personal look at the people who could be president, they also bring lots of money to a state’s media, advertising and hospitality industries.

But that’s still a ways off. For now, we have a big slate of races to sort through this year for leadership positions that all have a strong influence in our daily lives. It is our responsibility as citizens to weigh them carefully, hire the most qualified and hold them to their promises.

Our government only works well for us when we do our own homework to choose the best leaders. Either way, we get the government we deserve, so let’s choose well.

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