ATLANTA — Local legislators could make all county posts except county commissioner nonpartisan under a handful of bills approved Monday by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The bills would include elections for sheriff, district attorney, coroner, solicitor general, tax commissioner and clerk of superior court. Not included are races for county commissioner.
Most cities and school boards already hold nonpartisan elections.
Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, authored the bills and told the committee he was interested in getting good people to serve.
“It is my belief that we are not having qualified candidates that are not running for some of these offices because of the fact that they have to declare a party or because they just don’t feel like they can win as a member of that party,” he said.
Carter has sponsored all of the bills for the last three years, but they never came up in any legislative committee until this year. But he dismissed suggestions that Republicans who control the General Assembly only became interested after their national defeat in November’s presidential election when pundits’ observed that demographic trends were going against the GOP. Instead, he said voters now want more information than just a candidate’s party affiliation.
“I think people are recognizing the fact that because of the changing demographics that just because you’re a member of one party doesn’t necessarily the best candidate for some of these positions,” he said. “They want to know the qualifications.”
But Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, speculated that Republican fears were indeed behind it as is race.
“I tried to put this as delicately as I can,” he said. “... The reality that’s in force right now is that in communities burgeoning minority demographics that right now there’s a move afoot to make those elections for local elections nonpartisan. And the reason for that is to further diminish and/or dilute the strength of minority voters.”
Chatham County where Carter lives has a growing black population and has been electing Democrats to a growing number of county posts. Richmond, Fulton and Muscogee counties are following the same trend.
When Republicans began winning local races in suburban counties in the 1980s, Democrats controlling the General Assembly then pushed to make judges nonpartisan
In Monday’s committee hearing, lobbyists for the state’s prosecutors, sheriffs and tax commissioners are testified in favor of nonpartisan elections.
In voting, two of the three committee Democrats opposed every bill along with one Republican who favored the nonpartisan switch only if local voters get a say. The bills would allow the legislators from individual counties to decide if elections should change. The committee’s other Republicans all supported Carter’s bills.
Next they head to the Senate Rules Committee and then to the full Senate before moving to the House of Representatives for consideration.