Originally created 08/14/97

Georgia elections officials sued



ATLANTA - Public watchdog and civil-rights groups sued Georgia elections officials Wednesday demanding public financing for Senate campaigns, saying poor people are effectively shut out of office.

The suit filed in federal court by the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others argues that wealthy candidates dominate Senate elections, which creates a system of special-interest government for the rich.

The case relies heavily on data amassed recently by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based in Helena, Mont.

That study found that in the last three state Senate elections the average Senate challenger is outspent 4-to-1, and the fund-raising gap between incumbents and outsiders is widening each year. The better-financed candidate won 83 percent of the elections since 1992, the study said.

If the coalition wins its case for public financing, "this is a new weapon in our arsenal to end injustice and fight for justice," said Georgia NAACP Conference President Nelson Rivers. "Just as we fought to end the white primary, we will fight for the end of the wealth primary."

John Bonifaz, executive director of National Voting Rights, said wealth has replaced color as a barrier in the political process.

"The wealth primary today is like the poll tax of the past. It is a barrier to the meaningful right of all people to vote," Mr. Bonifaz said. "The exclusionary process of financing a senate election is unconstitutional."

The plaintiffs are asking for taxpayer funding to even the playing field only in state Senate races, because Mr. Bonifaz said only those races have been studied enough to produce conclusive evidence.

The suit names Secretary of State Lewis Massey, Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard and House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, as defendants.