Originally created 09/12/99

State looks to simpler election code



ATLANTA -- In 1997, the tiny south Georgia city of Baconton became America's poster town for political apathy.

They forgot to hold an election.

"They didn't even announce (candidate) qualifying," remembered Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, whose office oversees elections statewide.

But in the two years since that community south of Albany gained national notoriety, Ms. Cox's office has spearheaded a reform that she believes will make it easier for local officials to comply with election laws.

At the secretary of state's urging, the General Assembly passed legislation last year combining the existing state and municipal election codes, an idea that first was examined by a legislative study committee formed during the tenure of Ms. Cox's predecessor, Lewis Massey.

"Having two sets of election laws was one of those things that people said for years was ridiculous," Ms. Cox said. "But it was so voluminous, nobody would tackle it ... Now, if you're looking for something like a (qualifying) deadline, you can find it in one place, so you don't unintentionally make a mistake."

With candidate qualifying for municipal elections beginning Monday and running through Friday, election officials have no definitive indication of the level of interest in mayoral and city council seats across the state this year.

Ms. Cox won't even know until next week, after qualifying ends, what cities will be having elections. If only one candidate qualifies for each of a city's open seats, they will automatically fill those spots and there will be no election.

While the ho-hum campaign that appears to be shaping up in Savannah, where few challengers have stepped forward, is unusual for that city, Ms. Cox sees it as reflecting a "pretty ordinary" off-year campaign season.

She expects that many of Georgia's cities, particularly the small ones, will not hold elections at all this year because their mayoral and city council incumbents will be unopposed.

"In some of these really small places, few people are interested in running or there may be more satisfaction with the status quo," she said.

It's those smaller cities that tend to run into compliance problems. While officials in Baconton didn't hold an election two years ago because they forgot to offer potential candidates an opportunity to qualify for the ballot, their counterparts in Pulaski -- in a less publicized case -- simply were guilty of bad timing.

In Pulaski, a small city about 50 miles west of Savannah, officials had every intention of holding an election. But they were planning it for December, unaware of a 1990 state law requiring that general elections be held in November.

Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Ms. Cox, said the secretary of state's office conducts training sessions to help city clerks responsible for running local elections understand the complexities of the task so they can avoid such mistakes. But not all cities take advantage of the offer and the state can't make them.

Unlike many other states, Georgia law doesn't give the state government jurisdiction to run city elections.

"Essentially, we perform a supportive and advisory function for all elections," Mr. Riggall said. "But where we are the superintendent of elections is only in federal and state races."

Ms. Cox recommends that cities without a full-time elections supervisor look to their county governments, which have the expertise on staff, to provide elections services.

A committee formed by the Georgia Municipal Association in the wake of the Baconton case considered adopting such a policy, but officials in some cities objected to losing their autonomy.

"It relieves them of the burden of having a duplicate office," Ms. Cox said. "Particularly with small cities, it would be wise to contract with their county officials and not have to worry about it anymore."

Ms. Cox said the new, simpler election code should help, but it's not a panacea.

"If you still have local officials hiding their heads in the sand and not sending their clerks for training, there will still be Bacontons in the world," she said.

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Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.