ATLANTA — A federal judge has ordered permanent changes to Georgia’s federal election calendar, including one that will make next year’s primary elections much earlier than planned.
The order issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Steve Jones marks the end of a lawsuit the federal government filed against Georgia last year.
The Justice Department said Georgia wasn’t allowing enough time for members of the military and others living overseas to return absentee ballots in federal runoff elections.
Under current state law, runoffs are held three weeks after a primary and four weeks after a general election. But federal law requires that absentee ballots be sent to military and other overseas residents at least 45 days before a primary or
general election with federal offices on the ballot.
The new calendar imposed by the judge affects only federal elections. It sets a March 17-21 qualifying period next year, with primaries June 3 and any runoffs Aug. 5. Runoffs required after the Nov. 4 general election would be held Jan. 6.
Unless the Legislature acts in next year’s session to change the state election calendar, there will be different schedules for state and federal races in 2014, which could be problematic, said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees elections.
“Creating two separate elections, one for federal and one for state, is just going to be a nightmare for local elections officials,” he said Friday. “It’s going to be costly for the taxpayers and certainly confusing for the voters.”
Kemp would like to see the state appeal the judge’s order, and he’s talking to other state leaders about their options, he said. The office of Gov. Nathan Deal referred questions to Attorney General Sam Olens, whose spokeswoman said his office is reviewing the order.
Georgia had proposed keeping its current election calendar but continuing to accept overseas ballots in a runoff until 45 days after the date when ballots were sent out. The federal government rejected that proposal, and Jones agreed with the Justice Department’s assessment.
He said the proposal violates the principles that votes shouldn’t be cast after Election Day and that voters have equal access to information about the election. If put in
place, the proposal could discourage overseas voters from casting ballots if a candidate appears to have won in unofficial tallies, he wrote.
Jones would have liked for Georgia to have set a satisfactory calendar on its own, but because the General Assembly didn’t make changes to the calendar during this year’s legislative session, he was forced to impose a calendar, he wrote.
He also provided guidelines specifying scheduling requirements for future federal elections.
The new rules mandate that a primary be held nine weeks before the primary runoff, which triples the runoff period.
Kemp saw that as a negative change.
“Certainly, longer time means more money it’s going to take to run the primary,” he said. “It’s going to extend the election period a great deal. Sometimes I don’t know if the voter likes that. The way some of these campaigns go, I think people get tired of them.”